When the COVID-19 pandemic left the Hovnanian family feeling uncertain, they decided to channel their upset and frustration into action. If their family needed an outlet for helping others safely, then certainly others did, too.
In March, the family started Every Sandwich Counts, a community-wide initiative encouraging families to make sandwiches that the Hovnanian family donates to Cathedral Kitchen in Camden and Project Home in Philadelphia.
The initiative has grown beyond family members’ wildest imaginations, and in July, the Hovnanians reached the 20,000 sandwich mark.
Tamar Hovnanian said she’s always tried to instill the importance of giving back to her daughters, Annabel, 9, and Ella, 11. Throughout the years, the family has volunteered at the Philadelphia Ronald McDonald House and local food banks.
More recently, they connected with Cathedral Kitchen, a Camden-based nonprofit organization that provides free meals to impoverished residents of the city. The organization serves residents a hot meal and equips them with a to-go bag of food.
Prior to the pandemic, the Hovnanians would make 300 to 400 sandwiches a month to drop off at Cathedral Kitchen for to-go bags. Tamar said the family would typically walk into Wegmans and buy 30 loaves of bread at a time. When the pandemic hit and the aisles were wiped nearly clean, they could only find a few loaves to purchase. While they couldn’t make their typical bulk offering, Tamar assured her concerned daughters that even if they only made 50 sandwiches, it would still make a difference because every one counts.
Three weeks into the pandemic and still frustrated by food-supply shortages, Annabel asked Tamar when the COVID pandemic was going to end. Her mother reminded her that there are people without a roof over their heads or food for their tables. So, Annabel started thinking about those people and how her family might help move the pandemic in the right direction if they could feed those struggling.
The next morning, the Hovnanians started brainstorming how they could expand their reach. Tamar decided to put a call out on social media to see if anyone might be interested in donating sandwiches that the family would transport to Cathedral Kitchen on their behalf. The response was quickly overwhelming.
Within a few days, the family had more than 600 sandwiches dropped at its door. Donating families took things one step further and began writing messages or drawing inspirational pictures on the sandwich bags. So the Hovnanians sat down and gave a formal name to their initiative. They called it Every Sandwich Counts, based on their early pandemic conversations, and Annabel and Ella designed a logo. They designated Wednesday as collection day and put a bin outside the front door to allow families a contact-free dropoff. Donors simply ring the family’s doorbell before they leave to let the Hovnanians know they were there.
Tamar said with around 300 families participating, the donations became so large, the family had more than Cathedral Kitchen could make use of. So they began donating to Project Home, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization that works with homeless populations and seeks to break the cycle of poverty. The Hovnanians also started collecting water, snacks and toiletries to donate as well.
Noreen Flewelling, director of development at Cathedral Kitchen, the nonprofit has always relied on donations for its takeaway bags. When the pandemic hit, many of the places they relied on for regular donations — such as churches and schools — were no longer operating. The additional expense of purchasing the food and having staff make it exacerbated the already difficult situation. So when the Hovnanians showed up with increasingly large donations, they were especially appreciative.
“We were so deeply touched and so grateful,” Flewelling said.
While the Hovnanians started the initiative, they take almost no credit. Tamar said the donations are a sustained community effort and the work of families members of all ages. She’s asked families to send her photos of their children at work making sandwiches that she shares on Facebook. Receiving hundreds of photos of those young Moorestown kids has been something special to see.
The family plans to continue accepting donations through the end of the summer. Tamar said at that point, they’ll have to revisit their model to see how frequently they can collect. In the meantime, she added, the need is greater than ever, with donations typically decreasing during the summer months as people are away.
“This isn’t going away; the need is growing,” she said.
The family collects donations on Wednesday and Thursday, starting at noon at their home in Moorestown. For more information on where and how to donate, email Tamar Hovnanian at firstname.lastname@example.org.