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Overburdened NJ Food Pantries Challenged to Feed More Hungry Clients

“This is how (food banks around the state) coped already with the influx,” said Diane Riley, legislative director for the CFBNJ. “How are they going to cope now with another cut? It is not going to be good for the people who are coming in” to the food banks and pantries.

Struggling to Meet Demand

The Rev. Pat Bruger, executive director of CUMAC in Paterson, said the agency has been struggling to keep up with growing demand.

“We have had the largest month in our history every month this year, including 2010,” which was the height of the recession, she said. People are coming in for the first time because they have lost or seen a reduction in food, but CUMAC (officially the Center of United Methodist Aid to the Community/Ecumenically Concerned Helping Others) is also seeing people who need significantly more assistance. Many have been coming in occasionally, when they needed help making it to the end of the month. They are now visiting the pantry more frequently because of the loss of SNAP resources.

CUMAC is seeing on average about 3,000 people a month, though there have been spikes of as many as 3,600 in a month, Bruger said.

“If you go back even five years, we never had a month over 3,000,” she said. “A high month was the 2,500 range. Now it can be 3,600 or more.”

Sister Linda Klaiss of the Pierre Toussaint Food Pantry in Newark, which is run by St. Benedict Parish, reports similar issues.

“It used to be that pantries were emergency assistance, but now we are supplemental assistance,” she said. “For those of us in church-based organizations, so much is left to churches to pick up from the government.”

Toussaint pantry has a support group for families experiencing food security issues. She said the families who attend tell similar stories.

“These are people who are working and can’t make it,” she said.

She tells the story of a senior citizen who rents a studio apartment. His rent and other expenses keep going up, but his SNAP benefits have been cut. That has left him to cut back on food and to rely on the pantry for the first time.

Hungry and Cold

Bruger and Klaiss both said their experiences this winter were unusual and demonstrated how much people are struggling. During harsh winters, like this past one, pantries usually see a decrease in traffic as people stay indoors and make due. However, the need continued to grow this winter -- which they attribute to the first round of SNAP cuts and the loss of unemployment benefits.

“As bad as this winter was, when people are willing to stand out in cold and snow – we don’t have a big space – when people are willing to stand in line for an hour for a bag of food, you know they need it,” Klaiss said.

Patricia Espy, executive director for the Center for Food Action in Bergen County, said the first round of cuts meant that food aid was no longer stretching through the end of the month. That meant more people coming into CFA’s eight pantries more frequently. The CFA pantries provided about 56,000 food packages a year until “just a couple of years ago,” she said. This year it expects to provide 71,000.

She said the pantries are seeing more people who are “doing sustained feeding,” meaning they are relying on the emergency food system to do more than provide occasional help, because the food budget is the “thing that has most leeway.” Rent and utilities, for instance, must be paid on specific days. Food budgets, however, can be adjusted week to week. This has led to a growth in the number of clients and the amount of food they need.

Less to Go Around

CFA’s eight locations have all seen increasing need -- and have experienced a shortage of food.

“For the first time, we have had to scale back on the maximum number of people we could serve on any given day, and we’ve had to cut back on items,” Espy said.

Other pantries report having to make similar efforts -- capping the number of clients, cutting back on hours or shrinking the size of their food allotment.

“I’m often apologizing when I give (clients) the bag (of food),” Klaiss said. “Sometimes we give a half bag, or three quarters of a bag, because that is what we have to give. You only get so much from government commodities (surplus food purchased by the federal government and distributed to the poor) and we have to depend on donations to supplement.”

Democrats have made efforts to address the eligibility rules, but they remain on the backburner until the governor acts.

Ray Castro, senior policy analyst for New Jersey Policy Perspective, said the language in the governor’s veto message was important because it did not rule out possible action. Still, the governor has had the ability to do this administratively and has not, and he has yet to sign the LIHEAP bill, Castro noted. He added that the governor has known this was coming since passage of the Farm Bill in February.

NJPP estimates expanding LIHEAP aid would cost about $3.2 million, though it is unclear whether the money would come from the state or from unpsent LIHEAP funding. That would prevent about $170 million in food assistance from being cut.

“It is a small amount that has to go into the LIHEAP program,” said Serena Rice, the executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey. The big pot of money is the SNAP benefits that come back. To reject this federal money for a small amount doesn’t make sense.”

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