One eighty-seven-year-old recipient got her first pan of free homemade lasagna after she had been bedridden for fifteen years. Another, a mother feeling overwhelmed, was grateful her first lasagna dinner helped her feed her entire family.

What these two women have in common is Lasagna Love, a two-year-old organization founded by MIT Sloan graduate Rhiannon Menn that matches neighbors who want to help others with neighbors who, for whatever reason, need a helping hand. Some recipients requests meals for themselves; others are nominated by a friend or relative.

“When I got the call that the meal would be delivered to me, I was overwhelmed with joy. It came at a time when I had no strength to stand and prepare a meal for my children,” said Smith.

Lasagna Love now boasts 30,000 volunteers who have labored to donate 150,000 homemade lasagnas in three countries. Hundreds of those impacted — as either a recipient or a “lasagna chef” — live in Jersey City.

This writer got involved one month ago and has since delivered a lasagna to a single mother with three kids in Greenville and homemade shrimp curry (and lots of trimmings) to a twenty-something-year old with breakup blues living downtown. (Lasagna Love allows for meal substitutions as long as the chef offers lasagna as one of the options.)

According to Molly Yearick, who lives in Essex County and is Lasagna Love’s coordinator for Northern New Jersey, I am one of twelve Chilltown residents currently enrolled as lasagna chefs working to advance Lasagna Love’s mission of “spreading kindness.” Yearick, a high-level fashion industry executive, delivered many a lasagna herself before deciding to lend her organizational skills — pro bono — to the organization.

Jersey City’s lasagna chefs haven’t met one another, but they share the organization’s mission and passion.

“The idea of doing something as an act of comfort for someone in my community who was struggling in some way — be it financially, emotionally, or whatever the reason — resonated with me,” explains Melissa R., who lives in Bergen-Lafayette. “It’s a thing I’m fortunate to be in a position to do, and it brings me joy to fulfill that for them.”

Lasagna Love makes it easy to get involved and reap this emotional reward.  It makes it easy to sign up, it offers extremely thorough, well written support material for its volunteers (some of whom don’t bake but do other things), and its many moving parts are highly flexible. People can volunteer to cook once a week, once every two weeks, or once a month — and change their frequency any time. And home cooks choose their geographic delivery range and opt out of cooking lasagnas with meat if they’re vegetarian or vegan.

McGinley Square resident Ruth L. is not vegan herself, but getting assigned to cook for someone who was — and who also had food allergies — turned out to be one of her most satisfying matches.

“I was nervous about what to make and wanted to make sure it was tasty! I found a recipe for a different non-lasagna pasta dish, and my recipient was kind enough to let me give it a try. After delivering the meal, my match texted me to thank me for the meal and said it was the best tasting food she had ever had. We don’t always hear back from our matches afterwards, but when we do get that feedback, it’s really rewarding, and I feel very grateful to have made someone’s day a bit easier — especially when I know they enjoyed the meal,” she said.

This is not to say that one has to be an adventurous cook or a highly skilled cook to participate in the program. Not only do chefs from all over the world share their recipes and offer cooking tips through Facebook, but the best advice Ruth L. said she could give someone considering signing up was to follow that altruistic impulse regardless of kitchen experience.

“My advice would be not to be afraid of getting involved in whatever capacity you are able to. Before joining LL I had actually never made a lasagna before, which was what made me hesitant at first. Once I had completed a couple of matches, I felt a lot more confident,” she said.

Melissa R. agrees. “I think the willingness to want to cook for someone is much more important than being an expert chef. You’re going to get out so much more from this than you expect.”

Photo by Paul Pan on Unsplash

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Molly Yearick lives in Bergen County.

Deputy Editor Elizabeth Morrill has worked in business, not for profit fundraising and as a freelance copy editor. She holds degrees in American studies and education from Yale and Harvard.