Wherever you find neighbors in need in Paramus, N.J., you’ll find the MERK.
For the past three years, a group of Scouts and Venturers from New Jersey has operated a Mobile Emergency Response Kitchen, or MERK, to help feed first responders and disaster victims.
The MERK is staffed by a group of dedicated Scouts, Venturers and adult volunteers from Scouts BSA Troop 138 (for boys), Scouts BSA Troop 138 (for girls) and Venturing Crew 138 — all of Paramus, N.J.
Since the MERK debuted in 2016, Scouts and Venturers have prepared meals for families and emergency workers after a deadly school bus crash and collected and organized supplies for victims of Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas.
Thankfully, disasters don’t happen every week. But the MERK stays busy by providing food for first responders, community members and fellow Scouts at various community and Scouting events.
Troop 138 Assistant Scoutmaster Ed Hill is quick to point out that the MERK benefits more than just the people of Paramus. It enriches the Scouting experience for the young people who volunteer their time to help others.
“This is a program geared to engage our kids in helping and supporting the community while learning from their experiences,” Hill says.
Meet the MERK
When Scout volunteers have a good idea, they tend not to hoard it for themselves. They want to share it with others. That’s why Hill was so eager to spread the word about the MERK.
“I could see this program expanding across the country,” he says. “We have grown with the good nature of people and their belief in this program.”
Hill says the MERK can feed up to 180 people an hour. That’s an impressive number, and it was tested and surpassed on July 4, 2019, when Troop 138 and Crew 138 cooked sandwiches for the Paramus Fourth of July parade.
In less than an hour — 48 minutes, to be exact — the Scouts and Venturers prepared 204 ham, egg and cheese sandwiches.
“That’s quite an accomplishment for any professional caterer,” Hill says. “This undertaking was completed by Scouts and Venturers with limited leader involvement.”
Some MERK appearances, typically pancake breakfasts, act as fundraisers for the troop and crew. The money raised supports the MERK’s community outreach efforts, keeping its shelves stocked and ready to deploy any time.
The Paramus Rotary Club purchased the vehicle that would become the MERK. They bought it from the Philadelphia Fire Department and donated it to the Scouts. The vehicle had about 79,000 miles on it at the time of purchase.
“The engine and drivetrain were sound,” Hill says. “But the body was in need of work.”
And so the Scouts got to work. Using donated paint and supplies, Troop 138 Scouts and a few leaders painted the rig.
It was, as Hill says, “a great Scout effort.” The before-and-after results above confirm his assertion.
Inside the MERK and the trailer that gets towed behind it, you’ll find everything Scouts and Venturers need to prepare a lot of food, quickly.
- Two 4-foot stainless steel propane griddles
- Three 5-foot propane grills
- One six-burner propane stovetop oven
- Three two-burner propane stoves
- One propane warming oven
- One propane deep-fat fryer
- A refrigeration system
- A generator
- Miscellaneous cooking appliances and tools
Meet Ed Hill
Hill is a project manager in the commercial construction industry. Over the years, he’s been able to acquire many pieces of commercial cooking equipment.
“I was asked, ‘what are you going to do with all of the equipment?’ This was my plan,” Hill says.
He knew that few disasters are conveniently located near commercial kitchens, so he developed a kitchen that can go wherever it’s needed.
And how about that name? Hill drew inspiration from one of his favorite TV shows: M.A.S.H. (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital).
But he doesn’t have a ton of time for TV these days. Hill is too busy enjoying his third trip through Scouting.
As a boy, he was a Cub Scout in Pack 248 of Paramus. When he had kids of his own, he joined as a pack and troop volunteer. Today, Hill gets to watch his grandchildren — two boys and a girl — enjoy Scouting as members of Troop and Crew 138.
“Seeing the program through their eyes has been a special experience for me and has created an incredible bond between us,” Hill says. “The memories that we make together will last through all of our lifetimes.”