There was a time when anyone who needed food assistance could walk into the pantry at the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, Southern Branch, and get a box of groceries. Those days are gone.

The nonprofit recently started telling people they must go to their local food pantries for help.

Because of increasing need and less available food, it will only provide food on site to residents of Egg Harbor Township, where it is located, Executive Director Margie Barham said.

“It’s challenging. We are getting less food, less USDA product, and that sort of thing,” Barham said.

New rules are necessary to more fairly distribute the food that is available, she said, and no one facing a true emergency will go away empty-handed.

“But on a regular basis, people need to go to the pantries in their communities,” Barham said. She added that the FoodBank’s main job — distributing bulk food to about 200 pantries and 55 soup kitchens, shelters, and other organizations in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, and Burlington counties — continues as before.

The FoodBank is leaving it up to the 35 individual pantries in Atlantic County to decide if they will serve just their hometowns or remain open to all, Barham said. But pantries may have no choice but to restrict use, to avoid being swamped with requests.

The FoodBank’s new rule has already meant an increase in people who used to get food there now coming to pantries in Pleasantville, Galloway Township, and Mays Landing, volunteers said.

Mt. Zion Baptist Church’s pantry in Pleasantville had closed due to illness of a main volunteer about three months ago, and the church had not planned to reopen until January 2012.

But so many people have called saying they can’t get food at the FoodBank’s pantry, the church is reopening its food closet later this month, said church member Maria Edwards, of Egg Harbor Township. Edwards said the Mt. Zion pantry will serve only Pleasantville residents, since there is so much need there.

The Hope Chest food mission at Beacon Evangelical Free Church in Galloway Township has seen an increase in clients of about 35 percent since the new rule started in October, said Donna DiRenzo, of Galloway Township, who oversees the pantry. She said it now provides food to about 300 people a month.

DiRenzo is hopeful that a monthly mobile pantry from the FoodBank will help meet the needs there. The FoodBank started mobile pantries about two months ago, and they now serve about 530 families a month in four locations, Barham said. Two new locations will open soon.

The Main Street Pantry at the First United Methodist Church in Mays Landing has seen such an increase in its client base — from changes at the FoodBank pantry and the closing of a state-run senior center on Route 50 in Hamilton Township — it is changing its policy to provide food only to Egg Harbor City and Hamilton Township residents, said volunteer pantry director Kim Richardson, of Mays Landing.

Richardson said it will be emotionally difficult for volunteers to send people elsewhere, but it is necessary for the long-term health of the pantry, which went from serving about 70 families a month in January to about 150 families — about 500 people — a month in September. She expects October’s numbers to be even higher.

“We financially cannot keep up,” Richardson said. “Many in our own congregation are out of work.”

A tremendous increase in demand has forced the FoodBank to change its policy, Barham said.

Before the economic downturn, the FoodBank’s pantry would serve about 900 families a month, she said.

In October 2010, the pantry served 2,100 families and 7,100 individuals. The new policy went into effect last month, and the numbers dropped to 800 families and about 3,000 individuals in October 2011.

That means the FoodBank’s pantry is serving almost as many people from Egg Harbor Township as it served before the recession from most of Atlantic County, she said.

It’s the second time the FoodBank has cut back on who qualifies for help from its own pantry. In 2006, it stopped distributing food to people from Atlantic City and other towns on Absecon Island, referring them to several pantries on the island, Barham said.

The system is set up for people to use pantries in their own communities, which are stocked with food by the FoodBank, Barham said.  Food pantries are supposed to provide supplemental food, not three meals a day, 365 days a year, she said.

But she acknowledged that clients have been unhappy with the change.

“The regular people coming here for years have been upset,” she said. “Many see our food and think we’ve got plenty, but it’s for 255 agencies we supply. It’s not just for our pantry.”

She said 30 perent of the people who had been coming to the pantry were from Pleasantville.

“But Pleasantville has seven food pantries,” Barham said, while the FoodBank’s pantry is the only one serving Egg Harbor Township, she said.

From sign-in records at each site, it was clear some people have been visiting several pantries each month, Barham said. That created a fairness issue, as some people were getting more than their fair share, leaving others getting too little. And there is also a question of space.

The FoodBank is temporarily located in the former Value City Department Store in the Shore Mall, while a new building is constructed on the Black Horse Pike in Egg Harbor Township, near the Garden State Parkway. The FoodBank is scheduled to move to the new building next summer, Barham said. At that point, the facility will have one-quarter the space it now has for its pantry, and it will not be able to handle the huge numbers of clients it has handled at the mall.

Sending clients to their local pantries means they might not receive the same type of foods they had been getting.

The FoodBank’s pantry has refrigerators and freezers, and can provide frozen food and food that requires refrigeration, while many of the smaller pantries cannot. FoodBank staff estimates that only half of the pantries in the region are USDA pantries that can offer meats, cheeses, milk, frozen vegetables, and other items that need refrigerators or freezers.

Barham said the FoodBank can help pantries obtain refrigerators and freezers, if they ask for help.

Beth Joseph, of Jewish Family Services food pantry in Margate, said the JFS site handles 100 to 200 families per month, and offers nonperishables only. But she said she would pursue the possibility of adding refrigerators, if the FoodBank can help.

Contact Michelle Brunetti Post:

609-272-7219