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Of cheesesteaks and other food donations: How Step Up to the Plate provides free lunches daily

Through an arrangement among nonprofits and the city, food companies provide meals each weekday for hungry Philadelphians.

Abbe Stern (right), project manager for Step Up to the Plate, picks up one of several boxes of cheesesteaks at Pat’s King of Steaks, where owner Frank Olivieri sees her out the door.
Abbe Stern (right), project manager for Step Up to the Plate, picks up one of several boxes of cheesesteaks at Pat’s King of Steaks, where owner Frank Olivieri sees her out the door.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Abbe Stern hopped out of her red Ford Escape and swung open the back door of Pat’s King of Steaks at Ninth and Passyunk. The grills sizzled with beef and onions, the metal pots simmered with Cheez Whiz. Owner Frank Olivieri handed her a bread box filled with cheesesteaks, which she loaded into her car.

With 350 sandwiches aboard and with the windshield fogging with delicious steam, Stern cranked on the defroster as she drove to her first stop of the day, Broad Street Ministry. The Center City social services agency is one of the founders of Step Up to the Plate, which provides free weekday lunches at three locations in the city. Besides Broad Street Ministry, Step Up to the Plate involves the agencies Project Home, SEAMAAC, and Prevention Point Philadelphia, as well as the City of Philadelphia.

Stern — a project manager with Step Up who also runs Fooding Forward, her own nonprofit that addresses food waste from restaurants and caterers — made two other cheesesteak deliveries on Dec. 2. All told, Pat’s donated 1,250 sandwiches to Step Up. At retail, that’s $13,750. “And I can tell you, my car has never smelled better,” Stern said.

Pat’s is one of several restaurants, the Cook N Solo group included, that have donated food outright to Step Up to the Plate, which has provided about 400,000 meals in its eight months.

Other food companies, such as Catering by Design and Adelita Taqueria, are contracted with Step Up to provide meals for $7 each — at cost. The arrangement helps put a dent into hunger while keeping kitchen staffs working during the pandemic.

At Pat’s, Stern said, “The guys who were making the sandwiches were really interested in knowing where these sandwiches were going. I told them about Broad Street and the other drop-off points, like Eighth and Wolf [SEAMAAC’s site at the Francis Scott Key Elementary School] and Kensington, and they were like, ‘That’s so awesome.’ Some of them are from those neighborhoods.”

The program’s providers try to tailor lunch choices to the people in the neighborhoods they serve, such as banh mi and vermicelli bowls from PaperMill, tortas from Tamalex, chicken sausage with rice and broccoli from Baology, turkey sandwiches from Martha, pizza from CityView, pupusas from El Merkury, pad Thai from Thai Jai Dee, and chicken thighs and vegetables with rice from South.

Step Up to the Plate came together in two weeks last spring, at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. The partners raised $2.5 million to create three sites, intending for the program to run for seven weeks. More money kept it going through the fall. An additional $500,000 is needed, from public or corporate donors, to continue it through March 2021, according to Laure Biron, interim executive director at Broad Street Ministry. The organization’s website is

At all meal sites, COVID-19-related health-care services and resources are available for those experiencing homelessness, housing insecurity, or other needs.