In Paterson, program for women and children adapts to 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.

Nina Defenza says trying to feed her two sons and eight grandkids — who are all now living with her during the coronavirus outbreak — has become nearly impossible.

“I was struggling to cook the food because you are always missing something,” she said.

“I just don’t want them to suffer, it’s hard — especially the grandkids” she added. “That’s why us as adults we eat a little, but we make sure they eat more than us.”

To make it work, Defenza now wakes up early every morning and walks down to Mill Street in Paterson and gathers as much food as her walker can hold from Oasis: A Haven for Women and Children, a multi-function social service agency that is now devoting all its efforts to feeding those in need.

“If everything is prepared, then you don’t have to worry,” Defenza said. “By cooking your food, you still have to use your gas and your electric. This is one thing that’s easing, at least a little.”

Under normal times, Oasis is an anti-poverty and educational program for women and families. But on March 17, its leader says that all changed.

“We had a man come to our door and he said ‘I have no food for myself and my son,’” said Executive Director Jennifer Brady. “And we looked at each other and we said these are extraordinary circumstances so we will serve men as well. When we told that man we would give him food, he broke down crying.”

Previously, the agency had run a food pantry in conjunction with its other programs. But now it’s focusing completely on fighting hunger during the pandemic. It’s providing grab-and-go meals, as well as distributing emergency food packages and baby needs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.

The organization says it’s given out 10 times more meals than any other time and say 50% of the people who have come since the COVID-19 outbreak are brand new.

Among them is Francis Harrison, who was there this week picking up items for a friend in need, who found out about Oasis through social media.

“Some baby items. It’s four children and two adults in the household,” she said. “It’s easy to walk here if you live in this community.”

Jonathan Davis, team coordinator at Oasis, described how things are set up.

“We have two separate lines — one for women in the front and one for men,” he said. “They go down both blocks. A lot of people come. We are monitoring the lines, making sure everyone is keeping their distance and is peaceful and what not.”

The organization is also trying to keep families safe and healthy by giving them bandanas, rubber bands and instructions on how to make a mask.

“We handed out dish towels with Easter bunnies on them,” Brady said. “And the next day, some of our families came with dish towels tied around their faces. One of our donors heard about it and ordered 1,200 bandanas.”

Brady said Oasis has received more than $200,000 in donations during the pandemic, and is soliciting for more. She said she’s worried about how much longer the nonprofit will be able to meet the new demand for food.

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

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