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Founder of Hull’s meal kit program provides food with ‘dignity’

Dennis Zaia drops off a bag of meals to a family in Hull enrolled in the Stretch Your Food Budget program, which he created.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

When Dennis Zaia of Hull turned 75 a year ago, he let his friends and family know that the only gift he really wanted was money to help feed people who were struggling with food insecurity during the pandemic.

A week later, Stretch Your Food Budget launched, and ever since, Zaia and friends have been giving away meal kits that serve a family of four to six. The Hull public schools are now involved, as is the Nantasket-Hull Rotary Club, which is taking on the tasks of fund-raising and oversight.

In the past year, more than 950 kits went out to families — translating to more than 5,500 meals, Zaia said. He anticipates even more activity in the year ahead.

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The kits are free for the asking — with no conditions or requirements — and include ingredients and directions for five assorted meals: macaroni and cheese, minestrone soup, Tex-Mex chicken and rice, rice and beans, and apple cinnamon oatmeal.

Zaia gets the food wholesale from a local grocery and free from the South Shore Community Action Council food pantry. He assembles and packages the kits in space lent by a recovery facility sponsored by the Church of the Nazarene and located behind a Jewish temple on Hadassah Way.

The kits can either be picked up at the schools and other locations in town, or Zaia and friends from the Rotary Club will deliver them.

“I wanted to get food to people in a manner that has a certain degree of dignity and the least amount of embarrassment,” said Zaia, a former teacher who runs a human resources consulting firm. “I was also looking for something to do, anything beneficial, since all my consulting work had dried up.”

Those who know Zaia well were not surprised that he had taken on such a big project in the middle of a pandemic.

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After all, it was Zaia who helped organize volunteers to get the historic Paragon Carousel running again. Zaia was a member of the first Beach Management Committee in Hull and instrumental in the first beach grass planting campaign. He was president of the Hull Chamber of Commerce for seven years and helped start the Celebrate Hull festivities that kick off each summer season with a fireworks display the weekend after Memorial Day.

He also started “Hull Firefly” — the local version of the “Moth” storytelling show that, until the pandemic, brought hundreds of people together to tell five-minute stories based on a specific theme. He was part of the campaign to save the Hull-Boston ferry when the MBTA threatened to stop service, and he’s active in the local Rotary Club — organizing a community sweep day last spring to clean up the Kenberma business area.

“I’ve always worked to accomplish things that will help make the environment in which I live smoother, nicer, and hopefully happier than when I first encountered the situation,” he said. “It’s what drives me to get involved and add some order, structure, beauty and, hopefully, excitement to the lives we all share here in the town of Hull.”

Said Hull School Superintendent Judith Kuehn: “He is amazing, and it is pretty amazing what he is doing [with Stretch Your Food Budget]. He had a vision and he made it happen to help his fellow community members. And then he asked, ‘How else can I help?’ and we came up with the idea of a snack program” that provides knapsacks full of snacks for adjustment counselors to dispense to hungry kids.

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“He is committed and inspiring; and he is everywhere,” Kuehn said.

Zaia has been in Hull since the mid-1970s — living in a winter rental for three years (and traveling cross country in his car when he had to leave for the summer) and then buying a house on the water on Beach Avenue after the Blizzard of 1978 decimated the area.

He grew up outside New York City, went to college in Connecticut, and for nine years taught science at Central Junior High School in Hingham, where his wife also taught. He left education for a career in human resources, and got divorced. He and his husband — who married in 2004 — have been together for 35 years.

They live now on Allerton Hill in Hull, and, true to form, Zaia is working to reenergize the neighborhood association there.

“Hull is an amazing community,” he said. “The town is beautiful; I’m sitting here looking out at the bay. And it’s filled with people who all have their stories. People have moved here from Hingham, Cohasset, Newton, everywhere. And they all end up saying this is a place where you can be yourself.”

More information about Stretch Your Budget is available at www.syfb.space.

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seltzjohanna@gmail.com.

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Dennis Zaia, packs meals to deliver to families in Hull who are enrolled in the Stretch Your Food Budget program.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff