The Community Food Bank of New Jersey, Southern branch in Egg Harbor Township distributes about eight million pounds of food a year out of its warehouse on the Black Horse Pike.
But only a small portion of that food goes directly to area residents. Almost all of it is shipped to some 280 non-profit agencies and churches in South Jersey that run food pantries in their local communities.
It is those local food pantry workers, most of them volunteers, who help make sure no resident in their communities goes hungry. It's an often time-consuming task that operates almost like a business. In order to be a U.S. Department of Agriculture food pantry, and be eligible to receive surplus and other food through the Food Bank, pantries must be registered, records must be kept and sites must be inspected.
Jeff Salasin, of Rio Grande, helped found the More Than Enough food pantry and soup kitchen at Crest Community Church in Wildwood Crest where he was pastor after members learned that almost every child in the Wildwood schools qualified for the federal free school meal program. It took nine months to get IRS approval as 501cs non-profit group, but that designation allows the group to get an allotment from the Food Bank, and makes it easier to get donations from area grocery stores which can then deduct their donations.
Salasin said while it was a lot of work, the partnership with the Food Bank has been invaluable in showing them how to make sure people who come are qualified and protecting the pantry from scams where people will get food then resell it.
Typically registered residents can get food once per month from their local pantry, and each bag is typically enough for two or three days. Pantry workers stress that they are not grocery stores, and are intended to supplement a family's grocery budget, not replace it. They focus on high-nutrition non-perishable basics - peanut butter, tuna, cereal, rice and pasta, and must limit what a recipient can take because the need is so great.
"Many people do think they can just come and get what they want," said Elaine Winder, secretary at St. Peter's Church in Ocean City, which hosts the city Ecumenical Council's God's Kitchen Food Pantry. "And we only take Ocean City residents because that's all we can handle."
God's Kitchen is open 1 to 3 p.m. daily, and is staffed by volunteers from participating churches and the community. Winder said they are getting more requests for microwaveable food because not everyone has a stove.
Pantries that get food from the Food Bank must register recipients for eligibility, though there are pantries that will help anyone who asks. But the registered pantries said with limited food available, it is important to try to make sure it goes to those who truly need it.
"Unfortunately there are people trying to use them who are not eligible," said retired teacher Barbara Duus, of North Cape May, who now helps run the Cape May Community Food Closet at the Presbyterian Church in Cape May, which also serves Lower Township. She said some people are taken aback that they are required to provide income information to register. But, she said, most people are just appreciative that the pantry is available.
"I do client intake," she said. "We still get people affected by Hurricane Sandy. When I first retired I would see families I knew because I had taught their kids."
A five-man volunteer crew helps unload the government food delivery, and four volunteers prepare bags for 27 residents who are shut-ins. The local Kiwanis delivers those bags as a community service project. Duus said many of their clients are elderly single women living on Social Security.
Pantry workers said even with Food Bank and state allotments, they still rely heavily on local food drives to maintain their supplies. In addition to food they can always use personal items like toilet paper, detergent, soap, toothpaste and shampoo.
"We try to squirrel enough away until we have enough to put in the packages," Duus said. "If I can, I'll try to get some cookies or other treats once in a while. And we have a grab bag table of odd items people donate like canned beets or sauerkraut that not everyone wants."
Agencies with both paid staff and volunteers can be more accessible. Jewish Family Services in Margate keeps its food pantry open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily and will serve any resident of Atlantic County, though they do have to register. In November, typically a busy month, they provided food for 696 people in 260 families.
Coordinator Lee Turner said because their food closet is small - literally a closet, it takes a lot of work to keep it stocked. JFS gets food from the Food Bank and a state program, but also relies on volunteers, school groups, clubs and student community service projects to keep the shelves full.
"Seven years ago, when I started, there were maybe 35 to 50 people a month," Turner said. "We try to provide food that is nutritious and can be a full meal, like hearty soups and canned stews. Not everyone has cooking facilities. And laundry detergent was like gold after Hurricane Sandy."
In 2011 the More Than Enough group in Wildwood Crest also started a soup kitchen, feeding people on the Monday when they come to pick up food. The church also serves a free breakfast as part of services on Sunday. Typically between 140 and 180 households get food each month, and about 250 people will stay to eat. A donation of coats from Wildwood Catholic High School led to the creation of a clothing room as well.
Most food is non-perishable, but the Food Bank and pantries have joined programs that provide produce and meat. Local farmers, grocery stores, casinos and restaurants have all donated leftover food.
Vegetable farmer Tom Sheppard, of Sheppard Farms in Lawrence Township, Cumberland County, is one of several South Jersey farmers who donate less-than-perfect produce to the Food Bank. He sells directly to stores, which he said sometimes will reject produce with just four-percent decay. He donates that food to the Food Bank.
"It's still 96 percent good, and there's no sense in letting it go to waste when we can help someone," he said. He estimates hundreds of thousands of pounds of food are donated each year.
The More Than Enough pantry is also part of a trial program with Acme where the pantry get donated food that includes produce and meat nearing their expiration dates. A recent batch of produce resulted in vegetable soup for the soup kitchen.
Margie Barham, executive director of the Community Food Bank, Southern Branch, said many people don't realize they should go to their local pantry, and not the Food Bank, which is primarily a distribution center. The Food Bank has a map on its web site listing the location of every registered pantry in South Jersey, and has also begun a mobile food pantry that makes monthly stops in Egg Harbor City, Ventnor, Rio Grande and Wildwood.
"The system still can't feed everyone every day," Barham said. "We are just a supplement. But you give some people a loaf of bread, and they act like you gave them a million bucks. "
Duus said that, after the generosity of the holiday season, the winter months can be pretty lean for food pantries. People tend to forget that food is a daily necessity.
"But we're not afraid to ask for help," she said. "There are too many people in need."
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