Near the head of a line of more than 400 cars in a Mount Laurel parking lot, Jessica Kuzinksi and her son Dylan waited patiently for the start of one of the state’s biggest food handouts since the coronavirus pandemic began.
More than 1,000 boxes of fresh produce and nonperishable goods were being made available by the Food Bank of South Jersey in response to a growing need driven by almost two months of business closures and more than 1 million new jobless claims since mid-March.
After about two hours waiting in the drizzle on Friday morning, the cars edged toward a line of masked volunteers who loaded boxes into trunks and back seats while the drivers, also masked, remained in their vehicles, as instructed, in an effort to avoid any spread of COVID-19.
Kuzinksi, a resident of Mount Laurel, was laid off from her job as a server at a buffet in the local Fairfield Inn when it closed in mid-March in response to the statewide lockdown orders. She has applied for unemployment benefits, but those payments haven’t arrived yet and she hasn’t received an expected tax refund despite filing her return in March.
She has received a federal stimulus check for $1,700 but it’s not enough to live on, so she is now dependent on donated food from organizations like the Food Bank of South Jersey, and its network of almost 200 pantries — which has recently expanded to meet the increased demand.
“I haven’t been to anything like this, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said. “This is unbelievable. All these people need to eat. It makes me feel frustrated, and it makes me feel angry, and I want to help people. It’s absolutely wonderful what they’re doing, in the rain. I’m so grateful for it.”
A doubling of demand
The Food Bank of South Jersey, which serves Burlington, Gloucester, Camden and Salem counties, has seen about a doubling of demand since the pandemic began, and has so far been able to meet it, said Lavinia Awosanya, the organization’s chief development officer. She said the food bank distributed a record 1.6 million pounds of food in March, a mark that was quickly erased by 1.8 million pounds in April.
“Demand has grown significantly,” said Awosanya. “So far, we can match supply with demand but if we get to the point where we’re not able to support the community, then it looks very bleak for South Jersey.”
It’s a similar story at New Jersey’s two other food banks — the Community Food Bank of New Jersey (CFBNJ), and Fulfill, formerly the Food Bank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties — each of which are under unprecedented pressure to feed thousands more people who are suddenly without jobs and income.
CFBNJ, which serves 16 counties, distributed enough food in April to make 7 million meals, the most in its 45-year history, said Carlos Rodriguez, chief executive. Demand is up by about 50% overall but higher in some places, especially the bank’s South Jersey counties.
Meanwhile, food donations plunged 55% in April because supermarkets, normally an important source for food banks, are having trouble keeping their own shelves stocked amid supply-chain problems caused by the pandemic, so have much less to donate, Rodriguez said. To help make up the difference, CFBNJ is buying more food, at prices that are about 15% higher than normal, adding about $1 million a month to expenses, he said.
“The need generated by this crisis is truly unprecedented, greater than we’ve ever faced before and more devastating than anything I’ve seen in my 25 years of work in food banking,” he said.
At Fulfill, the number of people served has jumped to about 265,000 from 160,000 before the pandemic, while the number of meals served has risen about 40% over the last two months, said chief executive Kim Guadagno.
When people run out of savings
“We expect that number to grow as the newly unemployed at the Jersey Shore run out of paychecks, incentives, and savings,” she said.
Fulfill has been able to meet the increased demand so far but it’s unclear whether that can continue, given expectations that the spike in demand isn’t going away any time soon.
“The biggest challenge now is maintaining funding for the expected long-term need for food,” Guadagno said.
At the Mount Laurel distribution, boxes weighing about 20 pounds each contained produce including romaine lettuce, potatoes, onions, blueberries, and tubs of sour cream. They were donated by Farmers Against Hunger, a New Jersey nonprofit which collects unwanted produce from farmers, and showed up on Friday with about 20,000 pounds of food and around 50 volunteers.
Recipients were also given 33-pound boxes of nonperishables including canned goods, put together by the Food Bank of South Jersey with the aid of $32,000 in federal funding secured by Burlington County.
“We’re doing whatever we can to come up with the supplies, make the connections, get the people involved so that we can get the food out to the people who need it,” said Tom Pullion, deputy director of the Burlington County Board of Chosen Freeholders. “I believe people are going hungry everywhere simply because of what’s going on economically.”
Friday’s event served everyone in line and there was some food left over, but overall demand is expected to remain high because of the economic devastation caused by nationwide business closures.
Anticipating another surge
Greg DeLozier, senior director of advocacy and government relations at the Food Bank of South Jersey, predicted the demand won’t ease while new jobless claims keep rising, and may surge again in August when an extension of unemployment benefits is due to run out.
“We think this is going to continue for quite a while, and when we get to August after the enhanced benefit disappears, it will get a little bit worse again because those people who haven’t got back to work at that point are going to be back in line,” he said.
It’s possible that demand will moderate whenever the state clears its backlog of jobless claims but then those people will have their own backlog of bills to pay, and so may return to the food banks because they know they can get fed there, DeLozier said.
Department of Labor data show 83,326 people made first-time jobless claims in the week of April 26-May 2. Although the number was far below weekly surges of 200,000 or more earlier in the pandemic, the latest week was the first since early April to show an increase from the week before.
On Friday, it wasn’t hard for drivers to show that they were entitled to free food. They had to prove they were New Jersey residents or were receiving any one of five kinds of federal benefits. They could also qualify for the donation based on low income but that was self-declared, thanks to a waiver of federal rules that normally require proof of income, and which have been suspended in the pandemic.
The recipients included Kristina Johnson, 33, a single mother from Pemberton, who arrived with her 12-year-old daughter, Jenna, about two hours before the distribution began. Johnson said she was laid off from her job at Dunkin Donuts about two months ago, and has no income and no savings. She said she’s getting $200 a week in state unemployment benefit but that’s “not enough” to feed herself and Jenna and another child. Jenna held a hand-made sign saying: “Thank you for your time and service.”
Food stamps not enough
A few vehicles ahead was Carm Taylor, 56, from Pennsauken, who said she had been waiting for three hours for the line to open. She was already on food stamps before the pandemic began but said that doesn’t pay enough to feed herself, her unemployed husband, and their 15-year-old son, so she relies on events like Friday’s to “top up” her supplies.
It’s not easy to afford the gasoline so she can drive to such events but sometimes she has to find the money. “It’s hard for me to get around because this car takes gas and I can only go so many places. I got to stay local,” she said. “When there’s a big food drive like this, then it’s worth coming.”
Dylan Kuzinski, 28, who earns $14.50 an hour pumping gas at a convenience store in Mount Laurel, was the only interviewee who said he was still employed. He was grateful for that, and for the massive amount of food and labor that made Friday’s distribution possible.
“This is such a blessing that people continue to help us, we can all work together and get through this together as a community,” he said, sitting next to his mother, Jessica. “It’s really what brings tears to my eyes. It’s a shame that tragedy brings us together as a community, but this is where we are at our strongest.”