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Hunger Gains

Food pantries and community kitchens are increasingly common in Jersey's cities and suburbs -- and most can't keep up with demand.

Thanksgiving at the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen

When Martin Tuchman first approached Peter Wise about writing a how-to book on creating a soup kitchen, he turned him down. Wise had just retired after nine years at the helm of the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen and was feeling burned out and in need of a break.

That was 2007. Two years later, after having been approached by Tuchman and fellow TASK board member Irwin Stoolmacher, Wise had a change of heart. The recession was taking hold and it became more apparent than ever that there was a need to expand the emergency food system to help more people. And there was a need to make sure people understood both the legal and logistical issues they'd face.

So, the trio wrote "Mission Possible: How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen," which was published in late 2011 and is being distributed free as a download from www.startasoupkitchen.org.

"There is a huge unmet need," Wise tells me as we sit in the office of TASK Executive Director Dennis Micai. "Not for food pantries, but for places to get a sit-down hot meal."

That need may be greater than it has been in a long time. The economy has taken its toll on New Jersey residents. Unemployment remains above 9 percent. Housing prices have fallen. And emergency food agencies are feeling the stress -- especially in the suburbs.

According to a survey of state food banks done by Feeding America, 18 of New Jersey's 21 counties have food insecurity rates of more than 10 percent and, over all, 13.5 percent of the state's 8.8 million residents live with food insecurity. Of those, 59 percent earn too much to qualify for food stamps.

A 2010 survey conducted by the New Jersey Federation of Food Banks, which offers the most current information, found:

  • 87 percent of pantries, 72 percent of kitchens, and 55 percent of shelters in New Jersey reported that there had been an increase in the number of people served between 2006 and 2010;

  • 42 percent of those who use the emergency food system have children under 18.

  • At least one adult is employed in 34 percent of surveyed households, 20 percent of adults had lost jobs within the last year; and just 4 percent were homeless;

  • 80 percent of the households served by emergency food programs in the state are "food insecure," according to the U.S. government's official food security scale, and half of them are considered to have "very low food security";

  • Nearly half of the people in the emergency food system report having to choose between paying for food and paying for utilities or heating fuel (49 percent); food or rent or mortgage (48 percent). And a third (34 percent) report having to choose between paying for food and paying for medicine or medical care;

  • 33 percent of households in New Jersey report having at least one household member in poor health.

Anthony Guido, communications director for The Community Food Bank of New Jersey, which managed the survey and provides food for a majority of pantries and soup kitchens in the state, says the new clients are both the working poor in the cities and people in the suburbs who may have lost their jobs.

"It is not just a problem of the poorer classes," he says. "The middle class is facing it too. There are a lot of people dealing with the rising costs of food and gas and other necessities and they are having to make tough choices."

Bill Southrey, president of the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, which runs both a food pantry and a soup kitchen in addition to a 270-bed homeless shelter, says the bulk of people served by the mission come from the city, but his facility is seeing people come in from surrounding communities like Absecon and Pleasantville.

"It is hugely expensive to live anywhere in Atlantic County," he says.

The influx, he says, has caused the mission to cut back on the number of families it serves from its pantry to about 40 – which is in addition to 750 meals a day served in the soup kitchen to those living in its shelter and others who come in from the street – because of the strain on the food supply.

"At one point, the pantry was seeing almost 90 families a day," he says. "They can't make their bills and they fall back on their mortgage or rent and utilities, so we supplement it with food. We were seeing this surge of people coming in and the baskets were not adequate in composition or quantity, so we had to limit things."

In Trenton, TASK served 190,000 meals last year, up from 175,000. It now has six satellite locations, including two in Hightstown and one in Trenton. Dennis Micai, the executive director, says that the increase is part of a "huge change in the faces that come here." The current demographic skews both younger and older, he says, with more people under 30 and over 60 using the soup kitchen's services than in the past.

The newer people are jobholders and seniors on fixed incomes whose food dollars are not going as far as in the past because of the rising cost of living.

"What you will see here is that at the beginning of the month there are less people coming in because they do have some support," he says. "But as the weeks go on, we get busier and busier."

"The money they have -- whether from an assistance check, food stamps or a job -- "may have been able to purchase enough food to get through the month a few years ago, but now it is lasting just one or two weeks."

"It's tied into the recession," Wise says. "The cities already were in dire straits. Most of our clients didn't need a recession to come here. The recession is being felt more out in the suburbs. The food pantries are being hit hard."

The numbers bear him out. Four of the five counties with the highest food insecurity rates (Cumberland at 17.1 percent, Atlantic at 15.6 percent and Camden and Salem, both at 14.6 percent) are either primarily suburban or rural, though several are home to large urban areas.

Even in Morris County, which has the lowest food insecurity rate in the state, need has increased dramatically, as evidenced by the number of families served by the Morris County Interfaith Food Pantry. The pantry saw a 15 percent increase in the number of families, from 4,841 in 2010 to 5,594 in 2011, according to its annual report.

This backs up a point made by the authors of Mission Possible.

"While people visualize inner-city poverty when they think about a soup kitchen, it is important to note that there are marked migration patterns of poverty out from the cities into the near-in suburbs, as documented by the Brookings Institution and others," they write. "This suggests an emerging need for soup kitchens in some inner suburbs. Beyond the cities and inner-suburbs, there are also many rural areas without adequate emergency food services that could benefit from having strategically located soup kitchens."

Soup kitchens, he acknowledges, can be viewed as a Band-Aid on poverty. The charity model, as he calls it, has a limited reach, helping people when they are down, but doing little to address the larger currents that result in a growing group of those in need.

"We need to tap in more to the justice model," he says. "People deserve their integrity. It is a question of how do we get this country to be self-sufficient."

That, says Lisanne Finston, director of Elijah's Promise Soup Kitchen in New Brunswick, is why building more soup kitchens may not be the answer. Doing so, she says, will only perpetuate a system that is greatly in need of change. There needs to be a "paradigm shift" in the way we think about addressing hunger that takes into account both meeting the immediate needs of people, but doing so in the healthiest and most environmentally sustainable way, she says. That means moving away from packaged food and corporate food donations and moving toward provision of locally produced food. That way, she says, you can create a "convergence of the realities of food insecurity and public health epidemic of obesity."

"We're trying to cook fresh ingredients and not a lot of processed ingredients," she says of Elijah's Promise. "It is environmentally friendly, because we use flatware and not a lot of disposables. It is great that we want to do something to address problem of hunger, but if the things we are doing are part of the problem because the emergency food system is loaded with junk food, then we are perpetuating the disproportionate impact of diabetes on poor people because we're serving them crap."

Finston is part of a 17-member local food council in New Brunswick that is pushing to expand food options in the city by expanding community gardening initiatives, working with local corner stores to develop programs that will give them better purchasing power so they can offer more fruits and vegetables and lower costs, providing educational initiatives on food choice and preparation and ensuring that all eligible students participate in federally funded school breakfast programs.

Wise, for his part, agrees that soup kitchens are not an ideal solution, but immediate needs have to be taken care of.

"We need to help them become self-sufficient, but in the meantime we have to feed people," he says. "That's what the book is about. It is a sad commentary that we have to have places like soup kitchens. They started in the Depression and they are still around."

Hank Kalet is a veteran journalist and editor, who has covered economic issues, government, and entertainment in central New Jersey for more than two decades.

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