Christopher Carbonara became an instant hero not long ago. All he had to do was plug in his refrigerator.

Actually, two refrigerators and a walk-in cooler. And because the Montgomery County restaurant owner turned on the juice, suburban children facing hunger have enough food to last the summer.

“Chris is not just a hero, he’s a saint,” said Marcus E. Muli, district office director for Democratic State Rep. Joe Webster of Montgomery County.

Truth be told, there are a number of saviors and champions in this tale, from the pasta and pizza guy and the state legislator to the Catholic Church.

It all started with a simple, distressing fact: Summer is the hungriest season of the year for children, because schools are closed and lunches aren’t available. Even in the time of COVID-19, many kids were able to get food while schools were in virtual session.

Enter Nutritional Development Services of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Under the direction of Lizanne F. Hagedorn, the organization provides meals from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to 100 feeding sites throughout Philadelphia and its suburban counties during the summer. This season, Nutritional Development Services is distributing 22,000 breakfasts and lunches daily.

Hunger across America is growing for kids during the pandemic. Nearly 14 million children lived in a household characterized by child food insecurity — the lack of consistent access to enough food to live a healthy life — in the third week in June, according to the Brookings Institution. That’s almost six times as many as in all of 2018 (2.5 million), and 2.7 times more than during the peak of the Great Recession in 2008 (5.1 million), Brookings data show.

Despite the daunting numbers, though, “there is a great story here,” said Hagedorn. “So many people stepped up when this virus got really bad to feed the kids in their communities.”

Usually, food is distributed at sites such as churches, schools, and summer camps. But not all can be open this season because of the coronavirus. So this summer, children’s food is being distributed by unlikely people, including Webster.

“It was surprising to me how many children needed summer food in our area, which has above-average income,” said Webster, who represents portions of Skippack, Collegeville, and Upper and Lower Providence as well as West Norriton.

“Suburban poverty doesn’t get the focus it deserves,” Muli said. “Even among the affluent, you’ll find people in need.”

Because COVID-19 has played havoc with the economy, many of Webster’s constituents are losing work. “The system has become enormously fragile,” Webster said. “We don’t have a big safety net to fall back on.”

So Webster and Muli decided to connect with Hagedorn and distribute food to children in need — not the normal activity of state Capitol denizens.

They figured they’d ask a few businesses if they could divided the Nutritional Development Services food among them to feed the most kids possible.

They didn’t have to search far for help. That’s because heroes and saints always step up.

“Hold on,” Carbonara, owner of Via Roma Italian Restaurant & Sports Bar in Eagleville, said to Webster and Muli. Because the pandemic had shuttered his restaurant, Carbonara had unplugged his coolers to save money.

“You guys just hit the jackpot. I’ll plug my walk-in and refrigerators back in. You won’t need to go anywhere else. I’ll store all your food.”

Volunteers Nicole Timko, 16, of Audubon, Pa., and Kathy Costelo, 66, of Collegeville, Pa., pack food into coolers for Montgomery County children in need of food outside Via Roma Italian Restaurant and Sports Bar in Eagleville.
TYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer
Volunteers Nicole Timko, 16, of Audubon, Pa., and Kathy Costelo, 66, of Collegeville, Pa., pack food into coolers for Montgomery County children in need of food outside Via Roma Italian Restaurant and Sports Bar in Eagleville.

In the food business for much of his life, Carbonara, 50, a divorced father of three children ages 8, 10, and 12, bought the restaurant six years ago. Via Roma is a local institution, having been around for 51 years.

“My thinking was simple,” said Carbonara. “People in this community support me every day. It allows me to afford my house.”

Now, Webster’s office is in charge of an operation that feeds more than 1,200 meals to between 200 and 300 children every Tuesday and Thursday.

And Carbonara has expanded his participation, allowing Muli and about 50 volunteers to prepare and package the food inside Via Roma.

“It’s really the whole community coming together,” said Elizabeth Drummond, one of the volunteers and the vice president of the Methacton school board. “We’re helping people in hidden, underlying pockets of need. There are big homes here, but also trailer-park communities, low-income apartments, and non-English-speaking immigrants.”

For someone such as Gabriela Ponce, the combined efforts of a restaurant owner, a legislator, his staff, and a raft of community volunteers are helping her family make it through an arduous summer.

“The food is good for my sister’s son, who is 6,” said Ponce, 38, who lives with her 18-year-old son, as well as her sister and her family, in the Norristown area. Ponce, who did not identify her sister, said the woman can’t work because she has COVID-19. Ponce herself works six days a week in the kitchen of a country club.

“It’s hard to get food for everyone,” she said. “You worry about the kids.”

People such as the Ponce family have kept businesses like Via Roma alive all these years, Carbonara says. That’s reason enough to continue helping, as long as the summer food keeps coming.

“It’s the good circle of small business where you give back to your customers,” he said. “I don’t want to be in a business that just takes.”