Hunger in NJ: Food pantry trying to keep up during COVID-19 crisis

This is an 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.

The state’s largest food bank is struggling to tackle food insecurity amid the COVID-19 crisis, after supermarket shelves have been left empty by panicked shoppers hoarding the very goods used to feed already vulnerable families.

Carlos Rodriguez, president and CEO of the Community Foodbank of NJ, says his organization is facing a situation with few if any precedents.

“It reminds me a little of how we are operating as human service and food banks during the recession and Sandy, combined,” he said, from the organization’s warehouse in Hillside.

The anti-hunger effort is facing a challenge on two fronts, he said.

“There will be a shortage, there currently is a shortage,” Rodriguez said. “But I think, more important than the shortage, there is an increase in need.”

He cited a 15-fold increase in the ranks of the unemployed in New Jersey since officials have ordered all non-essential business closed to stanch the spread of the novel coronavirus that has now killed more than 110 in the state, and sickened thousands of others.

“That is the new reality,” he said. “We see it increasing before it stabilizes.”

Even before the outbreak, the Foodbank was serving 900,000 food insecure residents in New Jersey. The organization is now bracing for many more.

“As the virus spread to other counties, we really started a big push in Bergen,” he said. “We’re continuing in Essex County — especially in Newark where there are so many vulnerable families to begin with.”

“In Atlantic County, we were distributing the day after casinos closed,” he added, noting that 8,000 people were sidelined from their jobs as a result of the order to close the gambling halls.

COVID-19 has also changed the way the Community Foodbank goes about its business. New safety methods have been implemented, including social distancing and the use of masks and gloves, and volunteers are being trained to recognize symptoms of the illness.

All of which has a significant impact on the efficiency of operations at the massive food hub.

“What we used to do in an eight- and 10-hour shift. Now is spread out to over 24 hours,” he said.

To compensate, the warehouse is operating in three shifts of eight hours, both to accommodate the 30 or so pantries that come and pickup food from the hub Monday through Saturday and to unpack food that’s brought in to the warehouse.

Rodriguez says the organization is moving enough food to provide nearly 6 million meals a month, including at least 5,000 emergency meal kits — individual parcels that contain enough food for 40 meals servings, so that families in need can shelter in place.

Some help is coming via the New Jersey Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which recently announced that it will be distributing $70 million in extra SNAP benefits over the next two months to help more than 200,000 households buy groceries.

Rodriguez says he welcomes the support. But he also notes that the demand from those who are food insecure will continue well after the outbreak is resolved.

Support for “Hunger in NJ” has been provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.