By Raoul Momo

As we get to the end of the year, we get into the season of gratitude and giving. November and Thanksgiving are when people think most about helping those who might not have as much, especially when it comes to food.

But while this is noble and needed, we who are members of the Princeton Merchants Association believe it’s not enough to simply provide food.

As one of the owners of the Terra Momo Restaurant Group here in Princeton, I certainly understand the importance of food. But feeding the less fortunate is not just about filling their bellies, it’s also about filling their minds, hearts, and souls with education, friendship, and real nutrition.

For decades, the thinking has been to just collect and hand out food. Think of the turkey drives that for so many years gave turkeys to underprivileged families. It was a beautiful idea. But as we have found out, many families simply do not have the capacity to cook and prepare the turkeys in their homes.

Another issue that we have come to understand is that those who go hungry often do not have an understanding of what they eat. When you’re hungry, you want to fill your belly and end the hunger — but are you actually getting any real nutrition or are you just eating enough empty calories to tide you over until your next meal?

This is why the Princeton Merchants Association is taking the lead to address hunger and nutrition in our community and beyond. Our member businesses, from restaurants to non-profit and faith-based organizations and everything in between, are working to leverage the spirit of Princeton — where education and community are so central to the town’s culture and personality — in order to not just give less fortunate residents of Mercer County a meal, but to nourish and enrich them in other ways.

PMA member organizations and businesses have been addressing this idea for years. At Nassau Presbyterian Church, pastor Dave Davis has joined with the Rev. Paul Jeanes and Trinity Church to operate Crisis Ministry, one of the largest pantry programs in the area. Crisis Ministry provides nutritious food and nutrition education to promote healthy eating, as well as emergency financial assistance and workforce development services to help people gain employment in order to keep them from becoming homeless.

Trinity is also home to One Table Café, a community-based restaurant created to feed people in mind, body, and spirit. The café offers delicious and healthy dinners provided by a group of local restaurants, including North End Bistro, Witherspoon Grill, Olives, Teresa’s, PJ’s Pancakes and Pasta, Salt Creek Grill, Mediterra, and Blue Point Grill. One Table Café and donates proceeds to the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, Mercer Street Friends, Bread for the World, and the Episcopal Relief and Development Fund.

At Terra Momo, we alternate our restaurants at One Table to provide a healthy nutritious meal made with Real Food and, when in season, vegetables from our Canal Farm in Kingston.

One thing I’ve heard so often is the frustration of a mother who feeds her child plenty of things to eat — like lots of cereal — but cannot understand why the child is always sick. It’s because the child is getting calories, but not nutrition. He needs real food, and he’s not alone. That’s why our PMA members are working so hard to offer more than just a bowl of food to the hungry. We need to feed them well, not just feed them.

Of course, our efforts do not only involve food outreach programs by restaurants and places of worship. Arts Council of Princeton executive director Jeff Nathanson and his staff are hard at work trying to broaden the social outreach provided by the Princeton community, and they’re leading by great example.

The Arts Council has, for more than 20 years, partnered with HomeFront of Trenton to help families living in transient circumstances by providing free weekly hands-on art experiences and hot meals, with food provided through partnerships with Terra Momo, Olive’s and Whole Earth Center, to children who need their bodies and spirits enriched. We can learn a lot from this example, and many of us already have.

It’s one of the joys of being part of the Princeton business community that we all work together so well and so often. Being a small town and a big city all at once gives us a unique ability to work together and to tap into our shared resources as well as our shared sense of duty and community, far beyond the bottom line.

“We’re blessed to have the community we have,” said the Rev. Jeanes. “There’s a great spirit of community here.”

Raoul Momo is the owner of Terra Momo Restaurant Group and a member of the PMA.

The Princeton Merchants Association column is provided monthly by the PMA. On the Web: princetonmerchants.org.