This is the second installment of “Hunger in NJ,” a series produced by NJTV News and NJ Spotlight on food insecurity, a condition facing thousands of families in New Jersey, often forcing them to choose between paying the bills and putting enough food on the table.
It’s a simple idea. Take what you need, and leave what you can. At the Everittstown United Methodist Church in Hunterdon County, a “Blessings Box” is fulfilling a mission. The mini, outdoor food pantry is stocked with nonperishable items — and human kindness.
“We could use another cereal out here, too,” said parishioner Bette Mayers as she inspected the contents of the roughly 2- by 4-foot box installed on church grounds.
Mayers, the vice president of the church council at Everittstown United Methodist, says the idea was born out of the Little Free Library concept, with boxes set up on lawns and streets full of books for the taking. The Blessings Box is restocked twice a week, with donations both from the church and community members.
It’s a symbol of how big problems, like food insecurity, can be tackled in small ways, by everyday people.
‘A way to tangibly help’
“People are struggling,” said Alicia Grey, the associate pastor at the church. “And the issue oftentimes seems so overwhelming, so big. ‘How can I as one person help address hunger in the state?’ And so this is a way they can tangibly help.”
Unlike a soup kitchen or large food pantry, the box is available all hours of the day, all days of the week. Since it went up mid-September, use has been steady.
“We’re a small church, and we can’t do huge food pantries and things like that,” Mayers said. “But this was a niche in the area no one was filling because it’s available 24/7.”
The box is filled with soup, cereal, rice, pasta, even cake mix. But most importantly, there’s no judgment here. There are even a few grocery bags tucked in the back corner here so you can pack up your items to bring them home, and no one knows where they came from.
“The beautiful thing about it is it’s totally anonymous,” Mayers said. “Anyone that would be embarrassed to go to a food pantry because someone might know them — or just that they need it — would come to something like this because there’s no cameras, it’s totally anonymous.”
Grey said church members see that the box is being used. “We have no idea what time people are coming, who they are,” she said. “They could be single parents, college students, or elderly. Anyone can take advantage of this.”
Hunterdon County is among the richest in New Jersey. But according to the most recent data available from the state Department of Health, just over 5.5% of residents — or more than 7,000 people — were “food insecure” in 2017.
Hidden poverty countywide
“People don’t realize,” said Mayers. “They say, ‘Oh, Hunterdon County, that’s the richest county.’ But there’s a lot of hidden poverty in Hunterdon County.”
Those wanting to donate can either drop off appropriate, nonperishable items at the Blessings Box itself, or leave it with church personnel, who then stock the Blessings Box.
“We all have the necessity of eating,” Grey said. “We are letting people know they’re loved, that we see you, we care about you, and we want to help you.”
Parishioner Sargent Russell built the box, taking the concept and making it come to life with an old metal legal box encased in cedar boards that are resistant to weather and rot.
“See, it seals quite well,” he said. “So there’s really no chance of squirrels getting in. It’s a heavy door.”
For those who don’t know where they’ll get their next meal, this little wooden box on the side of a country road can be a real blessing.
Russell said it was easy to make, and that he’d be happy to lend his services to other communities looking to start their own. The endeavor has meant a lot to him, he said.
“It meant I would be able to fulfill something that a lot of people in the church feel is important, that we actually reach out to people directly,” he said.
“I hope other people will look at this and say, ‘Wow, this is something we can do,’” Mayers said.
Support for “Hunger in NJ” has been provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.