EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — After 18 months of operating out of the former Value City department store at Shore Mall, the Southern Branch of the Community FoodBank of New Jersey has moved into a place all its own.

“The real difference is this was built to actually be a food bank,” said Executive Director Margie Barham, standing in the new 29,000-square-foot warehouse off the Black Horse Pike. “That makes operations so much better.”

Barham said the Southern Branch, which has operated out of Egg Harbor Township since the late 1980s, was quickly outgrowing its original headquarters. The former lumber yard simply wasn’t equipped to handle the ever-increasing demand for food in South Jersey.

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“It was 27,000 square feet, but it wasn’t 27,000 square feet of useful space,” she said. “There wasn’t a loading dock. The ceilings were low, so you couldn’t stack pallets that high, and some areas you couldn’t access with a forklift.”

The new facility is about the size of half a football field, or roughly two-thirds of an acre.

Last year, the Southern Branch distributed more than 7.7 million pounds of food to its 255 partner agencies — many of them food pantries — throughout Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and southern Burlington counties. It also operates the only food pantry that serves Egg Harbor Township exclusively. Demand for food has increased 105 percent since 2007.

The new facility was funded through a $15 million capital campaign, which included donations and grants, through the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, which went toward both the Egg Harbor Township building and improvements to the Northern Branch in Union County.

During the campaign and construction, the Southern Branch moved into a vacant space at Shore Mall. That space came with its own challenges, Barham said.

“At the mall, we had a lot of people who wanted to cut through, like they did when it was Value City,” she said. “We had to tell people, ‘It’s a warehouse—you can’t cut through a warehouse.’”

Barham said the FoodBank also had to rent refrigerators for perishable items such as meat and produce because the Shore Mall facility had been a department store without capacity for food storage.

“As nice as (Shore Mall) was, we were anxious to get in and get operational,” she said of the new facility.

In addition to the extra 2,000 square feet of warehouse, the new facility also includes 22,000 cubic feet of freezer space — more than doubling what was there previously — and a three-bay loading dock.

While the loading dock makes receiving and shipping food much easier, Barham said, the additional freezer space will enable the FoodBank to be a regional center for distribution of meats and produce across the region.

“Produce can expire quickly, and it’s also the most expensive” food for the FoodBank’s low-income clients to buy themselves, Barham said. “Now, we’ll be able to get more of it out to those who need it.”

While electricians were still working on an automatic door, the shelves of the food pantry had yet to be stocked, and pink Post-it Notes still guided visitors around the newly painted hallways, the FoodBank was already open for business Wednesday.

Several volunteers from across the region were there Wednesday morning picking up supplies to take back to their food pantries.

Laura Fonville, who has volunteered at several food pantries, said the new warehouse was more organized and spacious than the previous facility.

“You know the flow of everything and how it all works,” said Fonville, who was there to pick up food for Praise Tabernacle’s new food pantry. The Egg Harbor Township church’s pantry will open the third Friday every month, starting this month, from 12 to 2 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m.

The FoodBank does a lot of good for communities across the region, particularly the elderly, she said.

“For them, it’s a choice between buying food or paying their taxes,” said Fonville, 47, of Egg Harbor Township.

Debbie Brasch, 53, of the Green Creek section of Middle Township, said she was picking up food for the first time for Caring for Kids, which operates a food pantry out of Seaville United Methodist Church.

Her pantry relies on the FoodBank for about 75 percent of its supplies, said Brasch, who is program director at Caring for Kids.

“I’m here at least once a month picking up food,” she said. “It looks great—compared to the original place, it’s a lot more spacious.”

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