VENTNOR — Brenda Toulson was all smiles Wednesday as she waited in line at the far end of the Ventnor Plaza shopping center parking lot.
She stood shoulder to shoulder with casino workers and others who had lost their jobs, who were on disability, young and old, and who were struggling to feed themselves and their families. But it was about to get a little easier.
A Community FoodBank of New Jersey, Southern Branch, truck pulled in about 10 a.m. Volunteers quickly assembled tables and unloaded boxes of frozen chicken, tomatoes, cans of beans and other food.
It was a sight that Toulson and other Ventnor and Margate residents haven’t seen in nearly eight months. For the first time since the old property hosts banned the food bank’s mobile food pantry, Downbeach residents needing assistance could get food from the mobile program in their own backyard.
“When the mobile went away, I had to buy all my groceries, left with no money in my pockets for anything else,” said Toulson, 64, of Ventnor. “This really helps. It’s always helped.”
Nearly 70 people on state and federal assistance programs showed up to the newly located mobile pantry. About 22 new people signed up for the mobile program, which food bank officials considered a lot.
The food bank, headquartered in Egg Harbor Township, established the mobile pantry program in Ventnor in 2011. Officials said they identified a population of people lacking access to healthy and affordable food.
More than 14 percent of Ventnor residents live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That rate is higher than in Egg Harbor Township, Galloway Township, Somers Point and Middle Township, some of which host a food bank mobile pantry one day per month.
Ventnor officials said the Veterans of Foreign Wars building on Dorset Avenue terminated its contract with the mobile pantry in July after receiving complaints from residents that clients of the mobile pantry were loitering on public property near the area.
Since then, city and food bank officials, as well as Ventnor residents, struggled to agree on a location for the mobile pantry.
Meanwhile, Downbeach residents were re-assigned to attend the Somers Point mobile food pantry. But that became an issue for people such as Toulson, who does not own a car and would have difficulty lifting and traveling on a long bus ride with heavy bags and carts of food.
Tonya Smith, mobile pantry coordinator, picked out some faces in line that she hadn’t seen since the previous Ventnor mobile site closed. Among them were people who needed food assistance to help feed themselves and their families after losing jobs in Atlantic City casinos.
Tracy Feigan, 45, of Ventnor, used the mobile pantry at its original location on Dorset Avenue after she lost her job when Trump Taj Mahal closed last year. She had to rely on others for rides to Somers Point, but more often than not, she wasn’t able to make it happen.
While negotiations about the mobile pantry’s relocation were ongoing, Mayor Beth Holtzman told The Press of Atlantic City that she understood the need for the mobile food pantry, but wanted to find a way to balance it with residents’ concerns.
Some Ventnor residents expressed their opposition at a January town hall meeting to several proposed locations for the mobile pantry to return to, including a location at Ski Beach near the NJ Transit bus stop.
But community food bank volunteers such as Diane Birkbeck pushed back and said the mobile pantry deserved an accessible public area in the community. She and about 15 others stood at the Ventnor site Wednesday and helped people load food into their boxes, bags and carts.
“Unequivocally, hunger lives in your community,” said Richard Uniacke, Southern Branch vice president. “There are families who are struggling and you can’t tell by looking at them.”