Love comes in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes in the form of homemade lasagna delivered to your door by a thoughtful neighbor. When the pandemic hit, budgets tightened and food sources were scare for many struggling families. The need was so high that many local food pantries couldn’t keep up with demand. That’s when chef Rhiannon Menn decided to take action and create Lasagna Love, a platform that could connect those in need of food with those who could provide it, in this case a variety of lasagnas made to order. Now in its second year, Lasagna Love has spread throughout the country, and even into Canada and Australia.
In northern New Jersey, Laurie Wagner has taken up this task as well. A resident of Byram, she first joined Lasagna Love as a volunteer in late 2020, after also feeling the urge to help those suffering as a result of the pandemic.
“I felt there were so many people affected, and I was lucky to not be, to have a stable job. So I started out as a chef,” Wagner explained. Then she was approached by Lasagna Love’s regional director for New Jersey, Shari DiBrito, who asked her to step up and manage the lasagna demand in Sussex, Warren and Morris counties. “It was a great opportunity to transition to a bigger role and make more of an impact.”
Wagner manages 56 active chefs in the Sussex County area, many of whom are on the southwestern side of the county, near her home base. She noted that, to date, 3,176 meals have been delivered to Sussex County residents. So now she’s looking to expand her volunteer roster northward in the areas of Vernon, Wantage, Montague and the neighboring boroughs and townships, to fill the demand in those locations.
To become a volunteer chef, you have to be willing to make a lasagna from scratch (no premade, store-bought lasagnas), and deliver it to the person or family requesting the lasagna. Prospective chefs just have to watch a video about food safety, confirm that they watched the video, and then get ready to be connected to fellow community members.
Wagner broke down the process. Once a week the Lasagna Love website matches volunteers with “requesters” based on food preferences (e.g. gluten-free, vegetarian), location and availability. Wagner looks over each request and makes sure there are enough volunteers to meet the need. She said requesters don’t need to meet any specific metrics or criteria; no one is turned away. And the reasons for needing a lasagna run the gamut.
“You never know someone’s circumstances,” she said. “There’s everything you can possibly think of. I read every one of [the requests]; sometimes I’m in tears. It can be illness, divorce, loss, a death, loneliness, seniors with limited resources or just someone who needs a home-cooked meal.”
She said she’s had college students make requests for some home cooking. She told of one family who wanted to send a recently deployed servicemember off with a homemade lasagna. Another woman had just moved into a safe house and needed to feed her family, but couldn’t give out the address, so Wagner coordinated a drop-off point to discretely connect the woman with her volunteer chef.
One requester had fallen on hard times and found himself unhoused and camping out in a shopping center parking lot. Wagner not only made and brought him a lasagna, but eventually connected enough to help him find a job and get back on his feet. Of course, there are also some requests that seem more about human connection than need. “One guy just said he was really in the mood for a lasagna.”
“We just don’t turn anyone away,” she added.
For Wagner, it’s not about judgement, or determining who deserves what, but about feeding families and spreading kindness throughout the community. “It’s a truly rewarding experience.”
And that notion can be hard for requesters to grapple with. One lasagna lover who went by Marilyn B described her experience in a testimonial, “My story starts with my family and I needing a little boost during this crazy season in our lives. A friend told me about your service, but it took me a while to think that I was deserving of such a wonderful gift. Once I requested my first lasagna your volunteers made me feel special. I knew that this was a wonderful service. I hope one day that I will be able to deliver a lasagna to another family like mine. With Lasagna Love.”
Another testimonial by Kelly S. said, “Our family expanded with twin boys in June of 2021. The strain of taking care of two newborns and their 3-year-old brother was overwhelming to say the least. Having such a wonderful meal delivered was a welcome relief for my husband and I. Sometimes a little spot of kindness and warmth is all you need to push through that week and it certainly helped brighten our day.”
Since its inception in March 2020, Lasagna Love has delivered 200,000 meals to 850,000 individuals with the help of 30,000 active volunteers. To volunteer or request a lasagna, visit lasagnalove.org.
“Sometimes a little spot of kindness and warmth is all you need to push through that week and it certainly helped brighten our day,” said Kelly S., who received a lasagna from a volunteer.