When the holiday season ends, donations to area food banks slow down, even as the demand for services in southern New Jersey continues to increase.
This winter, a combination of the economy, the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the expiration of unemployment benefits for some and cuts to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is sending even more South Jersey residents to local food banks.
And at the same time, donations are dropping.
“This is typical after the holidays, where we start seeing an influx of donations before Thanksgiving, and then it continues in December through Christmas, and then it drops off because they’ve already given,” said Margie Barham, executive director of the Community FoodBank of New Jersey’s Southern Branch in Egg Harbor Township.
Barham said she’s seen some people forced to choose between heating their home or buying food as they struggle to pay mortgages or rents, utilities and medical bills.
The Community FoodBank’s southern branch distributes food to more than 280 agencies and pantries in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties. But during this time of year the shelves at the facility will be stocked one day and empty the next, Barham said.
There is a pantry at their facility on the Black Horse Pike for Egg Harbor Township residents and those who do not have pantry services in their town, she said.
The food bank also operates a mobile pantry for five underserved communities: Galloway Township, Rio Grande, Wildwood, Ventnor and Egg Harbor City.
One of the largest food drives that the food bank depends on being successful each year is held by the Atlantic County Utilities Authority, but this year the event brought in about 40 percent less food than usual, she said.
“That is food that we always count on to carry us through January to March, until the spring when there are larger food drives,” she said.
In 2012, the ACUA food drive brought in 40,600 pounds of food and this year 24,039 pounds, ACUA spokeswoman Monica Coffey said.
Coffey said it’s unclear why donations were substantially lower this year, but it may be because the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas was so short.
The ACUA plans to double its efforts with the food drive next year, Coffey said.
“We still consider it a big success; 24,039 pounds is nothing to sneeze at. Not discounting what was collected, but we we’re disappointed that we didn’t meet last year’s number for sure,” she said.
Coffey and food bank organizers agree that they don’t know if conditions are going to get better any time soon, especially with the Atlantic Club Casino Hotel closing Jan. 13 in Atlantic City and the related loss of jobs.
“The number is getting staggering, of people in need. Our industry here is tourism, and Atlantic Club just closed and you can see every time a business like that closes there is going to be a need,” Barham said.
In 2013, the food bank nearly matched the 7 million pounds of food that was distributed the previous year, she said. The tonnage was high in 2012 due to Hurricane Sandy and continues to hover at the same level one year after the storm, she said.
“We’re still feeling the repercussions of the storm, and there are still people displaced, and these are people who in the past didn’t need social services, until this happened,” she said.
In Ocean County, trends of need have increased but donation activity is down, and the Monmouth Ocean County FoodBank is pointing to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy as the biggest reason. Like the food bank in Atlantic County, they are asking for help.
Carlos M. Rodriguez, executive director of the food bank, said about 8.5 million pounds of food was distributed in 2012 to more than 260 pantries and soup kitchens. This represented a 20 percent increase over the previous year, he said.
For this fiscal year that began in July, the food bank planned for distribution of 8.25 million pounds. But Rodriguez said six months into the organization’s fiscal year, there is a much higher and more consistent need than was anticipated.
“People are still trying to rebuild their homes and make ends meet. Expenses keep going up, and most of the families we’re dealing with are on fixed incomes, the same income or no income,” he said.
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