More Than Just a Food Pantry; A Community Center in Elizabeth NJ; A Meaningful Day in The Life by Calvin Schwartz October 29, 2017
Often in my journalistic approaches, I’m first compelled to tell how I wound up in the midst of a story, a cause, a place, a collection of special people. Call it interconnectivity, synchronicity, a pulse or a reason to believe. So, in this article title, I mentioned food pantry. So, I’ve got a bit of a history with food pantries, hunger, homelessness.
My journey to human condition awareness began five years ago. I lived a big piece of my life in middle class bliss called suburban Monmouth County, New Jersey which is 40 minutes from Manhattan and an hour from Philadelphia. There are pockets (towns) in the county that have horse farms. Mint juleps on cane benches on white wooden porches with fancy cars lined up in front of three-car garages are common place.
I was a new journalist for a few magazines and NJ Discover covering the pleasantries of central Jersey. One cold, snowy February day, I was invited to visit Tent City in Lakewood where up to 112 people lived (for up to ten years) in a forest, in tents, without heat, electricity or much food; some 23 miles from my home bliss. That experience changed forever the way I view the world. But that’s all a very long story.
For me now, homelessness was no longer part of an image of New York City but close to my world. People who are homeless are also hungry. So, I discovered the FoodBank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties, and did stories and spent time there learning and absorbing. I spent a day at Count Basie Theater in Red Bank at an all-day seminar on hunger.
What I learned that day continues to haunt me. At Rutgers homecoming football game last week, there was a table of students, RAH (Rutgers Against Hunger) collecting donations. Here’s what I told a few students. In 1980, there were 45 food pantries in America. Today there are 45,000. What does that say? We have a lot of work to do.
I did a story on Pastor Isaac Friedel, from The Jersey Shore Dream Center, in Asbury Park, that serves residents of Monmouth and Ocean County living under the poverty line and battling life controlling issues. Of course, they have a food pantry. One night, I went to help, as The WindMill Restaurants & The Dream Center sponsored a community dinner close to the holidays. Involvement is heartfelt stuff. I spent another afternoon at The Open-Door Food Pantry in Freehold next to Saint Peter’s Church after collecting/delivering food donations from a local elementary school. They’re all non-profit, interfaith agencies and (hint) need donations to keep up their work.
Interfaith, diversity, community are all wonderful concepts of American life in 2017. Now, to how I came to Elizabeth. My good friend Mark Ginsberg, a past volleyball opponent as well, called to tell me about the Food Pantry at the Jewish Family Service of Central New Jersey. They just finished construction (he’s a builder) of a new food pantry there and would I be interested in doing a story. It was an instant decision based on these opening paragraphs.
A torrential rain accompanied up the Parkway to Westfield Avenue just inside Elizabeth. I parked, not sure if I was at the right place. But on the front lawn was a vegetable garden with some un-picked Jersey tomatoes. The sun just came out. Mark greeted me at the front door.
Mark did the round table introductions to Thomas Beck, Executive Director, Heidi Pekarsky, Director of Marketing and Grant Development and Elie Bodner, Director of Community Engagement. I mentioned not having a specific agenda except learning everything about their Food Pantry and the many community services that this building provides.
With Hurricane Maria on my mind, I first asked if they’ve provided services for families who recently came from Puerto Rico. Tom quickly responded, “Yes, we just took in a family for services.” “Diversity is a beautiful thing,” I added. Tom went on, “Spanish, Hebrew, Creole, French, Polish, Yiddish, and Russian are spoken here…. Our staff is diverse so people feel comfortable.”
This next item impressed me with the depth/breadth of their commitment to all the community. They service Syrian families who have arrived in the United States with Refugee Status. In addition to food, they provide numerous services because of challenges in their resettlement; hunger, unemployment, PTSD and language barriers. “When they run out of food stamps in the third week of the month, they come here…. Their children don’t like peanut butter (a cultural thing) so we substitute rice,” Elie said. A Syrian delegation came into talk on how to meet their needs. This “blew” me away. It was so poignant. I thought that people need to know about their work with refugees. Heidi looked at me, “Media never covers this.” I winked, “Just the murders, robberies and harassments.”
The Food Pantry currently services 155 families and they can deliver. With the new pantry, there is a client choice program for up to 50% of the amount provided. Prepacked food is available at the front door. The tradition is not to turn anyone away. I asked, “What about the community garden out front?” “It produces 1500 pounds per year. If you need something, come in.”
The Jewish Family Service of Central Jersey is a NJ State Licensed Outpatient Mental Health Center. Later, when we were touring the second floor of the facility, I saw white noise machines in front of several doors which meant there were patients inside. It’s a mental health code to have these when patients are seen. There is children’s and domestic violence counseling. For adoptions, they do home studies. In addition to an Alzheimer’s Support Group, they have a Memory Café for those with early or moderate Alzheimer’s and their care partners. The café provides lunch and social activities.
I asked about senior citizen services since I am one. They have a whole range of services from homemaking, meals on wheels, counseling and nursing. Much of the services are paid for by foundations, government funding, fundraising from the community, and private and corporate foundations. I am overwhelmed by the scope of what takes place here.
“And the people who work here.” “We have 100 full and part time staff plus three interns, one speaks Arabic…. The Food Pantry depends on volunteers, packing the boxes which will now be re-usable bags which are more environmentally friendly…. There is less stigma with a bag.” They also get a lot of support and food from the regional Community Food Bank of Hillside. The maintenance of the garden is 95% volunteers.
And they spoke about their Holocaust Survivor Program, providing services for 125 Holocaust survivors; housekeeping, transportation, meals, home health aides, medical, dental and emergency financial assistance along with a Café Europa, on premises for social gatherings.
We toured the building; it overwhelmed me. How deceptive from the outside on Westfield Avenue; how extensive, endless hallways and offices. Elie picked up a huge bag of carrots. From the strain on his face, it looked like 70 pounds. We took an elevator down to the old pantry and then walked outside to the back to the almost finished new pantry; a modern bright utilitarian facility.
To be a thorough journalist, I asked about financing of the program, who helps and supports this huge undertaking for the Elizabeth and surrounding Union County communities of many backgrounds. I’ve always loved Elizabeth; my father worked here in a shoe store for 30 years. Heidi gave me the funding sources for the JFS Food Pantry: FEMA, Halpern Family, The Mushett Family Foundation, Stop N Shop Supermarkets, Wakefern/Shoprite, Wells Fargo Philanthropic Services, The Wilf Family Foundation. Generous support also comes from numerous private community donors. Many donors have standing orders with diaper deliveries, and many schools, synagogues, and federation groups have food drives and donate on a regular basis. Community involvement is key to the success of the Jewish Family Service Food Pantry.
Just as my head(emotions) went spinning in a dozen different directions after I visited Tent City five years ago, learning about homelessness(hunger), my head is spinning again with everything I absorbed during my afternoon here. But this is a good spinning; a positive emotional experience; people are doing good things here. And I constantly need that upbeat human species reinforcement. I love this kind of journalism.
FOR MORE INFO and HOW TO DONATE & VOLUNTEER: http://www.jfscentralnj.org/
UPCOMING FUND RAISING EVENT