Almost 300 New Jersey food pantries and soup kitchens are sharing in $3.5 million to improve their services to people who have become food-insecure because of the pandemic and are expected to remain as COVID-19 infection rates drop and vaccinations increase.
The funding is to enable the distribution network for New Jersey’s food banks to more efficiently meet demand for food assistance that, though lower than its pandemic peak, is still much higher than it was before the pandemic began.
Most of the money has been raised by three food banks — the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, Mercer Street Friends, and NORWESCAP — and has been supplemented by the New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund’s Endurance Grants program, said Carlos Rodriguez, president of the Community FoodBank, the state’s largest hunger-relief organization.
“We provide food to local communities, and we do that in partnership with local program partners — the pantries, the soup kitchens — which make up in large part how the food gets to communities,” Rodriguez said. “Fundraising has been challenging to many of our smaller partners, and operating costs have gone up tremendously.
“What this round of funding did was to really speak to the needs of our local partners, and to fuel them with resources to be able to do what they did over the last couple of months and during the winter,” he said.
A total of 292 local organizations are getting a maximum of $15,000 each to help with projects such as extra refrigeration, the addition of outdoor food distribution, and the provision of nonfood essentials like diapers for infants. The funding was announced last week.
Demand remains as people pay off debts
Although demand for food assistance has dropped from its highs now that the state is reopening and more people are going back to work, demand for hunger relief is expected to remain well above pre-pandemic levels for a year or more because of the severe financial damage suffered by many people who lost their jobs over the last 14 months.
Even if more of those people are now working, it will take time for them to pay off the debts accrued in more than a year out of work, and some are turning to food pantries and soup kitchens while they prioritize what bills to pay, according to food bank leaders like Rodriguez.
At Bloomfield Presbyterian Church on the Green, which received $15,000, there are now around 300 families that use it to feed themselves, said Don Cornell, director of the church’s food pantry. Although the number is now lower than the 500 families who were coming for hunger relief at the two peaks of the pandemic in June and December last year, it is around six times the 50 to 60 families a month that the church fed before COVID-19 hit in March 2020.
The lasting surge means the pantry will have to stay in a building on the church campus where it moved temporarily during the pandemic to meet surging demand and provide more room for volunteers to work safely apart from each other. But the building needs repairs to its sagging kitchen floor to support a commercial-weight refrigerator that will store some of the extra food.
Some $3,000 of the new funding has been dedicated to repairing the floor, but Cornell said he fears the repair work will be more expensive. If so, he may divert some of the funds that would otherwise be used for buying nonfood items like diapers or adult incontinence aids.
His client families have typically grown to include grandparents as well as children, Cornell said. He estimated that 90% of his clients had never used a food pantry before the pandemic.
The pantry currently distributes about 5,200 pounds of food a week, about two-thirds of which comes from the Community FoodBank, Cornell said. Before the pandemic, the pantry was able to meet demand from other sources, but the pandemic forced it to turn to the Community FoodBank — the state’s largest, with operations in 15 counties.
Cornell said he expects to feed the current number of people for some time to come. “We are making plans to be able to support that current level,” he said. “We expect it to stay well above what we were seeing pre-pandemic.”
Better serving those in need
At NORWESCAP, a Phillipsburg-based nonprofit that helps low-income people with needs including education and health, in addition to food insecurity, CEO Mark Valli said the new funding will allow the local food-distribution partners to better serve their clients.
“We know that we aren’t reaching everyone struggling with food insecurity, and the best way to reach more people is to help our local partners build their capacity to supply more food to more people,” he said. “These grants represent a first step in that direction and more families will get the food they need to sustain themselves because of it.”
The state’s two other leading food banks, the Food Bank of South Jersey, and Fulfill, which together serve six counties, were not part of the new funding but have raised their own money to strengthen local services, Rodriguez said.
The funding recipients are mostly smaller groups that may not have professional development staff, and may not be familiar with how to obtain funding from different sources, he said.
“These are operations that are really the bread and butter of our partnership,” he said. “They are really just focused on getting the job done locally. We wanted to make sure that we give them what they need to do that.”
Some local hunger-relief groups that popped up in response to the pandemic will “sunset” as the need for food assistance gradually declines, he said. Those that remain can expect to serve many more people than they did before the pandemic for some time to come.
“After every disaster, we know it takes families a longer amount of time to go back to pre-disaster levels of food insecurity,” he said. “We’re coming out of this pandemic with that information in mind, knowing that this will be much more complex than anything we’ve seen.”