Chester “Nick” Bondiskey remembers the Community FoodBank of New Jersey in Egg Harbor Township as a drab facility providing no help as to what he and his family should eat.

Bondiskey now goes to what the food bank calls its choice pantry, gets a shopping cart and strolls the aisles of a building redesigned to resemble a supermarket. A volunteer helps Bondiskey select foods that he, his girlfriend and two daughters would actually want for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Inside the pantry is a bin of corn that clients pick themselves. Shelves are lined with soups, meals in a can, whole-grain breads, vegetables, soft drinks and water.

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“It’s much better now,” said Bondiskey, 53, an Egg Harbor Township resident who can only work part time because of a disability from a motorcycle accident.

The food bank began its choice pantry program two years ago, joining other pantries, school lunch programs and organizations trying new ways to reduce the stigma of poverty. Experts say that stigma leaves many too embarrassed or ashamed to get food their families need.

“The stigma of being poor is very pervasive in American society,” said Joan Maya Mazelis, assistant professor of sociology at Rutgers University in Camden and an author on the subject. “We tend to elevate the individual and responsibility for one’s own self. When someone asks for help, (Americans) wonder why they’re not making it on their own. It does prevent people from asking for help.”

A matter of choice

Richard Uniacke, vice president of the food bank’s Southern Branch, said some people won’t visit a food pantry in their community for fear of being seen by someone they know. The goal of the choice pantry is to serve clients in a dignified way and to empower them to make their own choices, said Kimberly Arroyo, director of agency relations and programs for the Southern Branch.

Betty Thomas, 64, of Egg Harbor Township, walked the aisles of the food bank on a recent Wednesday with a pantry volunteer. Thomas was trying matzo ball soup for the first time.

“They let you choose,” Thomas said. “I like that they remodeled it, and it makes it so much easier to do things.”

The shopping is a change from the way most pantries operated, with clients getting pre-prepared boxes of food, Arroyo said.

“They (now) get the experience of going to a grocery store and picking out the items that they want within the guidelines of what we have available,” she said.

The effort seems to be working: The food bank’s pantry serves about 2,500 people a month, and the agency saw a 10 percent increase in use, in part because of the choice pantry, but also from increased need.

Uniacke said the impact could be greater, but a person can only use the choice pantry once a month, by appointment. They can only handle a limited number of people each day, he said.

Researchers say there is still more work to be done to overcome the stigma of poverty.

People in poverty commonly “blame themselves for their plight,” even when their predicament is from something beyond their control, like losing a job, Mazelis said. That includes those struck by the economic downturn in 2008, when more people found themselves having to ask for help, she said.

Children aren’t immune from that condition, according to a study released in August by the Urban Institute, an economic and social policy research group, and Feeding America, a national network of food banks.

Adults frequently overlook the food insecurity plight of teenagers because teenagers — ashamed of revealing their situation — make “great efforts ... to hide their hardship,” the study shows. Hungry teenagers frequently invite themselves to friends’ homes for dinner, when it may be the only way they’ll get a decent meal that day, the study shows.

In the schools

The National School Lunch program subsidizes meals for more than 30 million children a year in the U.S. More than 500,000 of those children are in New Jersey.

School officials have known for years that many eligible parents were too embarrassed to apply for the federal free or reduced-fee school meal program. High school students were especially less likely to participate so as not to be publicly identified as needy. That’s changing as more schools switch to a debit card or PIN system.

“Only the cashier can see their status,” said Teresa Smith of Sodexo, the Atlantic City school district’s food service company.

Almost 85 percent of students in Atlantic City are eligible for the program. Smith said the volume alone reduces the stigma, although it’s still difficult to get some families to register.

“We send the application form home with every child,” she said. “We don’t always get it back.”

Last year, only about 50 of the 950 students in the Wildwood school district weren’t registered for the meal program.

“And even then I knew there were families that were eligible but were just too proud to apply,” Superintendent J. Kenyon Kummings said.

The district now participates in the Community Eligibility Program, which allows districts with a high percentage of students eligible for the meal program to provide free meals to all children.

Smith said Atlantic City is also investigating the program.

Personal experiences

Joanna Cruz works the late shift at a deli in the Salem County community of Penns Grove, making just enough money to support herself and two children. The 32-year-old Cruz once lived in a Philadelphia home with no functional plumbing and worked a seasonal $10-an-hour job at the city’s zoo.

“I kind of grew up that way,” she said. “It’s what I knew all my life.”

Cruz is one of more than 100 members of Witnesses to Hunger, part of Drexel University’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities. Those “witnesses” are mothers and caregivers of children who speak openly about their experiences with poverty and hunger to foster social change and reduce the stigma of poverty.

“They’re putting a human face on poverty with their own words and experiences,” said Michelle Taylor, program manager for Witnesses to Hunger. “Nobody is (currently) speaking for them. Nobody is trying to construct a narrative. Sometimes they say things that are making people uncomfortable, and that’s what we want.”

Cruz said she’ll keep talking about the plight of the impoverished as long as she can.

“I’m not doing the greatest, but I’m stable,” Cruz said. “I shouldn’t feel ashamed because I’m down on my luck.”

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Copy desk chief / comics blogger

Press copy editor since 2006, copy desk chief since 2014. Masters in journalism from Temple University, 2006. My weekly comics blog, Wednesday Morning Quarterback, appears Wednesday mornings at PressofAC.com.

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