EGG HARBOR CITY — A woman in a navy tank top pushed her small son in a stroller as she chatted with friends and grabbed canned vegetables, chicken, cereal, milk and ingredients for meals she would cook that month.
The single mother of three children, Elizabeth Hassall, 33, of Egg Harbor City, didn’t go grocery shopping at a supermarket.
She stood in a line to get fresh and preserved food from the Community FoodBank of New Jersey’s mobile pantry, which travels to towns like Egg Harbor City where there are people who need help feeding their families.
“It’s helpful because even though I get food stamps, it isn’t enough,” she said. “I try to buy in bulk because that seems to be cheaper and more efficient when you have a large household, but it still doesn’t really get you through.”
Advocates have turned to these mobile food pantries to get food closer to communities and children that need them. Officials say it’s a small piece of a complicated puzzle to address the struggles of 52,270 children living with food insecurity in South Jersey, and the program expanded this year.
Come September, when seasonal jobs dry up, lines at these pantries will triple in length, coordinators said.
A large truck with the Community FoodBank logo on the sides pulled into the parking lot. Volunteers opened brown boxes and set out piles of peanut butter, nuts, cereal, boxes of pasta, applesauce and dried cranberries on picnic tables along both sides of the truck.
Galloway Township is a large municipality on the northern border of Atlantic County.
In cold-storage containers were frozen fish and chicken breasts, thighs and legs. Most opted for at least one of everything.
People who were shopping for larger families got vouchers that allowed them to take a little more of some food items.
The mobile pantry delivers nearly 1 million pounds of food each year to locations in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties, said Richard Uniacke, vice president of the food bank’s southern branch in Egg Harbor Township.
“There are people in South Jersey who understand how hardworking good people find themselves struggling,” Uniacke said. “There are lines at pantries like in Galloway, which could be Anytown, USA. We go there twice a month because once wasn’t enough.”
Food stamps can fall woefully short in New Jersey.
A family of four can get a maximum of $649 per month, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But reports from Feeding America put each meal in New Jersey at an average cost of $2.98.
For everyone in the family to afford to eat three meals per day, the food stamp allowance falls about $400 short.
Hassall lost her job as a massage therapist at Revel when the casino closed two years ago. Finding work was hard, and she decided to go back to school for nursing. But her problems didn’t stop with unemployment.
It has been nearly three months since her fiance and the father of her youngest child died. She and her three children, ages 11, 5 and 15 months, have since struggled with buying food.
“I’m taking all the help I can from the state so that hopefully when I am done all of this, I won’t have to go back to using it. I just want to be able to take care of them,” Hassall said.
Andrew Watson sees the need throughout South Jersey from behind the wheel of the mobile pantry truck.
He sees families living in motels near Egg Harbor City who need food they can cook without a stove. He sees people in Somers Point who need diapers and baby formula for their infants.
“Our hearts are in this. We’re here on the front lines, and we see the need for the mobile pantries. You can be moved to tears almost every day,” said Watson, who’s worked there for five years.
At a mobile pantry site in the parking lot of the Village Shoppes in Rio Grande on a brutally hot Monday morning, Watson worked quickly to put together bags of kale, sweet peppers, lettuce, peaches and apples. He also offered cartons of soy milk.
Watson said some people may not like kale, but most people deny it because they don’t know how to cook it, have never eaten it before and don’t know about the nutritious value of it.
In May, the food bank’s mobile pantry expanded to the AtlantiCare Health Complex in Atlantic City, where doctors approve and “prescribe” patients to visit the pantry to get proper nutrition.
That tries to tackle another obstacle to feeding children in need — not only that they have food, but that they have healthy food that won’t increase their risks for diabetes, heart disease and other conditions later in life.
“If you can’t get basic needs, how can you make a commitment to your health if you don’t have food to eat? Your health system is off,” said Laura Engelmann, AtlantiCare community health and wellness manager. “This is an awesome opportunity (to) provide nourishment and to teach people about it.”
Tonya Smith, mobile pantry coordinator, helped work both the Egg Harbor City and Rio Grande visits this month.
In the afternoon, a woman got out of her small red car and handed Smith money in the parking lot of the Village Shoppes.
The woman said she stood in the mobile pantry line all last year to help feed her family.
“She just walked up and donated money and said, ‘We got out of the situation we were in, and I just want to help,’” Smith said, crying.
Smith and others who work here see the same faces month after month, bundled up in the winter, sweating in the summer.
Needing help to feed their children.
Cindy Stansbury contributed to this report.