Note: direct quotes from conversations that took place at the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, Southern Branch have been transcribed here as honestly as I was able to remember. No attempt has been made to embellish what was said.
If you’ve never fully observed the changing landscape while travelling south on the Garden State Parkway, you really ought to the next time.
On my car ride last Friday to the Southern Branch of the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, located off Exit 37 in Egg Harbor Township, I got to see some of those wonderful changes in scenery. As you may know, we live in Forked River, which is right at the northernmost part of the Pine Barrens. As you wind down the Parkway from the Waretown entry point, you’re in a seemingly endless tunnel of pine trees. Suddenly, as you cross the beautiful Bass River, the trees thin out to open, expanded marsh areas, and you cross another river – the impossibly twisty Mullica. Then comes the man-made spectacle of the Atlantic City skyline off in the distance. Soon after I was taking my exit, and after a short jaunt down the very Jersey-looking, strip mall-laden Black Horse Pike (aka US40), I had arrived.
From the Parkway, the Community FoodBank building may look like a nondescript industrial site that’s past its prime, but from the parking lot the view was different. Far from being stodgy, a funky and playful mosaic design spelled out “Community Food Bank” on the outer walls. It was the first of a number of different and unexpected views I would get.
The building appeared to have two entrances, and I headed for the one closer to the road. In front of me were six or seven people who were not saying much of anything as they squeezed themselves into a small space between the door and the desk. I quickly realized that this area was for the “clients” – those who needed the food for their families. The near silence of this group of people spoke to me of the seriousness of their situations; after all, these folks were not queueing up for the newest ride at Great Adventure.
I headed to the second entrance, and a pair of automatic doors slid open to a different view. This was one of a small group of volunteers that were welcoming and helpful. After talking to the front desk, a woman named Rose came out and very politely told me that my contact would not be back for another hour or so and asked if I could come back later. “I can do that” I replied, and considering I was to arrive late morning and it was now 12:30, I was going to be extra flexible.
After a drive up and down the Black Horse Pike to kill time, which included discovering and shopping at an Asian supermarket, I returned back at 2PM, and arrived just in time to watch a local TV news team shoot a small segment that showed the Atlantic County Library System making a donation from their food drive. While this was taking place, I met Evelyn Benton, Branch Director of the CFBNJ Southern Branch and my contact. After the TV piece was done, Evelyn took me back to her office.
“So…who are you, and what are you all about?” Evelyn asked me.
“A concerned citizen.” I replied.
I talked about our blog and the “Blogging Out Hunger” campaign. I explained that for me, just blogging about the critical status of the FoodBank wasn’t enough – I wanted to go and see things for myself.
Evelyn has worked at the Community FoodBank for 16 years, so she has seen many things in her time there. When I asked her how this holiday season has been, she simply replied “Awful. Simply awful.” The good news, as she explained, was that the FoodBank has received so much media coverage lately that they have seen a major inflow of donations. And that’s great…for now. The real problem was going to be come January when the giving season has passed. The donations drop off, but the demand does not. By March, Evelyn explained, the charitable organizations that rely on the FoodBank will come needing food, “and so will we.”
I was able to take a look the branch’s most recent Program Report, which sums up all of their activities. For most of us, the situation with the FoodBank is a recent one. For Evelyn, however, she could see this coming as far back as 2006, when gas prices started to make its climb. For the working poor, the price of gas was adversely affecting them long before it hit $4 a gallon. And the numbers bore that out: in 2006, the Egg Harbor branch provided 2.23 million meals; in 2007, that number had jumped to 2.70 million. Through October, the number was already at 2.38 million, with the busy holiday months still to be counted. The report also showed a disturbing trend at their on-site assistance pantry. In June of this year, their pantry assisted 990 families; in October, that number jumped to 1,498. In October of 2007, the number was 1,148.
While the report certainly had some sobering statistics, it also showed the amount of good work being done here. The Egg Harbor branch does more than just food. They have a KIDS Resource Center, which provides school supplies, coats and linens. They have also provided such services as legal aid and a veterinary clinic. They have even started a program with selling donated CDs and DVDs on half.com, and have raised over $3,000 so far this year.
After reviewing the report, Evelyn took me on a full tour of the food bank. As we walked down the hallway, I asked her “So…16 years…why do you still do it?” Her response? “The reward. It’s very rewarding. I get paid to help people.” You always know when someone has found their calling when they sound amazed that they actually get paid to do what they enjoy.
At the beginning of the tour, Evelyn explained where their donations come from. As far as money goes, 75% of the cash donations they receive comes from individuals (you and me). Most of their food donations come from food companies, then from federal government programs. Only in the last couple of years has the FoodBank received food from the state government.
As we walked around, Evelyn showed me the different parts of their storage area: the area for sorting donations, the area for their pantry, the larger storage area for the food donated by companies and from federal and state government programs. I was glad to hear that, according to Evelyn, the federal government was trying to put an emphasis on healthier food.
After spending the better part of an hour with Evelyn, I had a much better appreciation of the work being done by these folks at the FoodBank. While the view from the pantry line was more quiet and somber, the view I got from the employees and volunteers was of hope – people working hard to help others.
As a food blogger, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the ‘food as entertainment’ mindset. I mean, I love to read about a cool new recipe or a great little place that serves well-prepared ethnic food. But for people who are struggling, food is simply a means of survival, and obtaining food may be becoming harder for those folks.
Evelyn Benton gave me a list of the foods that were most needed at the food bank; they included peanut butter, tuna fish, rice, dry pasta, canned or dried soup, canned fruits and vegetables, and baby food and formula. This is as basic as you can get. These are not people who are struggling to get a good smoked Gouda; these are people who need formula for their baby’s survival.
It doesn’t take a lot to help. Buy an extra box of pasta or can of soup when you shop to give to a food drive. Take one of the $1, $3 or $5 tabs at the checkout isle at your supermarket for the FoodBank. Volunteer a bit of your time. Now more than ever, small gestures will go a long way. And if you don’t think it’s worth your time and effort, think about how many of us are one lost job or extended medical stay away from needing this kind of assistance.
Now, more than ever…
The Coummunity FoodBank of New Jersey, Southern Branch covers Burlington, Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties
Food Bank of South Jersey covers Burlington, Camden, Gloucester and Salem counties
The FoodBank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties covers Ocean County
I have to take a moment and thank Deborah Smith at JerseyBites for getting us involved in such a worthwhile project. If you’re old enough to remember the great Earl Campbell and how he’d carry three of four defensive players on his back, his jersey torn up, and still get to the end zone – that’s Deb. Here’s the list of all the Jersey bloggers making their voice heard today. Please let them know they’re doing great service work!
Participating Bloggers for “We Can’t Let This Bank Fail” campaign
3) Jersey Girl Cooks
4) Simply Sable
5) John and Lisa are eating in South Jersey
6) Padma’s Kitchen
8) Life Lightly Salted
9) My Italian Grandmother
10) Cook Appeal
11) Crotchety Old Man Yells at Cars
12) Mommy Vents
13) This Full House
14) Paper Bridges
15) Motherhood Avenue
16) The Kamienski Chronicles
17) Down the Shore with Jen
18) Fits and Giggles
19) House Hubbies Home Cooking
20) Nourish Ourselves
23) Off the broiler
24) Mrs. Mo’s New Jersey Baby
28) Savy Source Newark
29) Momlogic New Jersey
33) Best of Roxy
34) Citizen Mom.net
36) Jersey Beat
37) Pop Vulture Phil
41) Mike Halfacres Blog
43) Family, Friends and Food
47) New Jersey Real Estate Report
49) More Monmouth Musings
50) Man of Infirmity
51) Another Delco Guy in South Jersey
53) Average Noone
54) Cleary’s Notebook
55) Welcome to my Planet
56) The Center of New Jersey Life
57) Sharon’s Food Blog
58) Morristown, Chatham, Summit, and Madison NJ Real Estate
59) Midtown Direct Real Estate News
60) New Jersey Real Estate
63) The Ridgewood Blog
64) Book a Week with Jen
67) Matawan Advocate
68) Take Back the Kitchen
69) The Joy of Toast
70) Route 55
71) Montclair Kids.com
74) Joe the Blogger
75) Environmental Republican
76) Stacey Snacks
77) Subversive Garden
78) New Jersey Pathfinder
79) Cooking With Friends Blog
80) Triple Venti
81) Read All About It
82) Rich Lee on Media
83) Likelihood of Success
84) Cape Cuisine
85) The Business At Hand
89) Caviar and Codfish
90) A Day in the Life
91) Mack’s Journey Through Life
92) Alice’s Restaurant
93) Tiger Hawk
94)Politics Patrol, The Bob Ingle Blog
95) The Food Chain
96) Henson’s Hell
97) Cranbury Conservative
99) New Jersey: Politics Unusual
100) Jersey Shore Blog
101) Plainfield Today
102) Beacon Bulletin
103) Journal Square Jersey City 07306