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New London — Four chefs have banded together to join the local effort and provide hundreds of free prepared meals to families in the community.

The results of the “Whalers Helping Whalers” initiative was on display Saturday at the Elks Lodge in New London, where more than 300 meals were expected to be handed out to members of the community.

Thomas “Chef Tomm” Johnson, the culinary program manager at New London High School, which is known as the Whaler Cafe, spearheaded the effort with a group of chefs from across the region: Lee Masten, executive chef of the Spa at Norwich Inn; Jose Lopez, sous chef the Spa at Norwich Inn, and Ron Dutes, executive chef The Andrea in Westerly.

Sidelined from his regular duties at the school, Johnson said his attention had quickly turned to the community. His skill set being what it is, he started raising money for food to cook and hand out to struggling, often out-of-work, families in New London.

“We came up with the idea by talking amongst ourselves and thinking of a way we could help the community and since we are all chefs, what came next was natural for us,” Johnson said.

He said all of the elements needed to start cooking fell into place. Money came in quickly through a post on Facebook and later from a GoFundMe initiative. The Elks Lodge, closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, generously offered a kitchen to prepare and cook meals. New London Human Services Director Jeanne Milstein stepped in to identify the people who would most benefit.

Local groups that have joined the effort to identify people in need and volunteer to deliver meals include Alliance for Living, Drop-In Learning Center, Safe Futures and the Hispanic Alliance. 2Wives Pizza had donated vegetarian options for the meals.  

With the first $1,000 raised in just two days, the chefs started cooking. The group handed out about 250 meals the first week. This weekend, the chefs cooked 450 meals: 500 pounds of chicken, along with rice with vegetables.

Johnson sees no sign of the need for food diminishing, and said “I have a feeling we’re going to be doing this all summer.” Johnson, who with his students organizes a holiday food giveaway each year, said he has become connected to the New London community through his students

“People may not quite understand but these kids become your kids,” he said.

Mayor Michael Passero said the meals are just another example of community members stepping up to help neighbors in uncertain times. Milstein said, “by supporting collaboration like this, we will ensure that every family in New London makes it through this crisis.”

Families seeking support during the COVID-19 pandemic should contact the city’s Department of Human Services Help Line at (860) 941-4355 or helpline@newlondonct.org. Additional information is available at developnewlondon.com/coronavirus.

The fundraising campaign to purchase supplies for the effort is at Whalers Helping Whalers on Facebook, bit.ly/whwdonate, and on GoFundMe, bit.ly/whwgfm.

 g.smith@theday.com

The Day – ‘Whalers Helping Whalers’: Chefs band together to feed community
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