EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Just as Hurricane Sandy expanded the number of local people seeking assistance from food pantries, so has another recent development: the closing of the Atlantic Club casino.
Now, as demand increases but supply continues to drop, the Community FoodBank of New Jersey’s Southern Branch continues to do what it can to help.
With the Atlantic Club closing, which left 1,600 employees without jobs, on-site numbers at all 250 agencies served by the food bank have increased by 35 to 40 percent, said Kimberly Arroyo, Southern Branch director of agency relations and programs.
“We see families who have never had to use food programs before,” Arroyo said. “It’s been an interesting few years working in social services. You see clients who have been working in steady jobs, who put their kids through college, who own homes, who now need a supplement to make ends meet. It’s humbling — and a little scary.”
The drop in donations at the same time, FoodBank officials said, is making things all the more difficult.
“We’re off by almost 400,000 pounds from the year before,” said Southern Branch Director Evelin Benton, of the Forked River section of Lacey Township, who said the food bank has taken in less than 4.7 million pounds of food this fiscal year (July-June) compared with more than 5 million at this point last year. “About 300,000 of that was Sandy-related, but if you take that out, we’re still about 90,000 pounds down from the year before.”
Breaking it down further, Benton said that local food drives took in about 57,000 pounds less than last year, while holiday meal drives were off by 4,000 pounds.
Atlantic County Utilities Authority spokeswoman Monica Coffey said they took in about 24,000 pounds in their annual December food drive, down from about 40,000 in 2012 and almost 60,000 in 2009.
“We still do think it’s a very respectable result,” Coffey said. “One of the things that impacted the results was that Thanksgiving was late this year. There was Thanksgiving weekend, then bam! Monday morning, our food drive started. Usually, there’s a week in between Thanksgiving and the first day of the food drive.”
Meanwhile, Benton said, “Demand has been crazy. Distribution has actually been up, even as donations are down, due to areas like government (funded) foods and purchased foods.”
The state Department of Agriculture’s State Food Purchase Program allocated $6.8 million in state funds this fiscal year for the food banks to purchase healthy foods. This quarter’s $1.7 million distribution took place in January, department spokeswoman Lynne Richmond said, with the next distribution in May.
In addition, the Community Food Pantry Fund, a check-off on state tax forms that allows taxpayers to either contribute a portion of their tax refund or make a donation, raised $58,223 over two years for its last distribution to food banks in 2012, while the department also distributes federal Department of Agriculture-donated foods to the food banks via the Emergency Food Assistance Program.
At the Community FoodBank’s distribution center in Egg Harbor Township, the two aisles on the right — with foods purchased by the state or federal government and provided to the food bank — were more full than the aisle on the left, made up mostly of donations and some other foods purchased by the food bank with government funding.
“This starts coming in through food drives,” said operations manager Andy Applegate of the stacks of boxes in the left aisle. “The individual boxes and cans, that stuff ends up in this area here. As you can see, there are a lot of empty spots on the racks.”
At its own adjacent food pantry, one of dozens supplied by the FoodBank, the aisles are set up for “choice shopping,” Arroyo said. “Clients can come in and choose what they want instead of just giving them a bag. It’s definitely one of the more dignified ways to serve clients.”
Many of the items were donated by local supermarkets, many times products that are slightly out of date, damaged or otherwise not sellable. A volunteer, one of about 30 on hand per day, helps guide them through the aisles, where they’re allowed products based on family size and ability to pay.
“It helps them better make choices on what they really need versus what they can buy at the store. A client can get carrots and juice here, (and) that frees up money they can use at ShopRite. It creates better buying habits, as opposed to getting something they’re never going to use and they end up giving it to a neighbor.”
One other thing was for certain, Applegate said — the weather was not helping either.
“Especially this winter, Applegate said. “Gas bills are going up, electric bills ...”
The FoodBank’s mobile pantries — trucks that serve areas without pantries, including Galloway Township, Ventnor, Egg Harbor City, Rio Grande and Wildwood — have also been active, Arroyo said. And the weather is no impediment.
“It’s all volunteers,” she said of the mobile trucks’ workers. “We were out today in Wildwood, and people were standing out in line in the cold.”
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