For most of us, the question of what to eat for breakfast, or lunch, or dinner, is simply one of decision-making. We know that the food is there. We simply have to choose what to eat.
For a growing number of local families, however, the question is very different. Their problem is not what to eat but how to get the food they need, for themselves and for their families.
The problem of food insecurity is growing, and the majority of families that need assistance are working families with children. That’s true even when both partners are employed. It is not surprising, then, that Jewish Family and Children’s Services has opened a second food pantry, this one in Fair Lawn. (The other one is in Teaneck.)
Jessica Fleischer, JFCS’s chief operating officer, said that “the impetus for opening the Fair Lawn pantry” — it opened on Wednesday, March 14 — “was our own clientele” from that area. In January 2017, JFS of Bergen and North Hudson, headquartered in Teaneck, and JFS of North Jersey, which covered Fair Lawn and Wayne, merged to form Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey.
Clients who need food assistance have been recognized through clinical situations, Ms. Fleischer said. “We didn’t set out to look for it,” she added, noting that the topic simply arose during the provision of services or counseling through the agency’s mental health clinic. Some clients, the agency’s staff has found, suffer from food insecurity. Others are experiencing “real hunger.”
Ms. Fleischer said the problem “cuts across the board. The first 10 clients [at the new pantry] will probably include three or four seniors and six or seven families with children. That is what we’ve experienced in Teaneck.
“The majority who come in are working adults,” she said; the community does not have the problem of chronic unemployment, she added. But insufficient income, “combined with rather significant decreases in food stamps,” has caused the problem to increase. She noted that one senior gets food stamps — but now it’s been reduced and he receives only $13 a month.
Rather than advocate for increased benefits, “our strength as an agency is to help clients advocate for themselves,” Ms. Fleischer said. She noted, however, that JFCS does participate as an agency in advocacy organizations when it’s appropriate. “If benefits are denied, we will help clients file appeals, go to meetings with them, or sit with them during phone calls,” she said. “It’s person-to-person advocacy.”
The agency has seen the need to open a second food pantry for the last two years, Ms. Fleischer said. “We’re only a year into our merger. It was one of our goals.” In the meantime, she said, JFCS has referred people in need to the Food Action Center. “All pantries work together,” she said. “We refer clients back and forth and share resources.”
Ms. Fleischer said that this year, the agency anticipates serving about 195 households, or 1,500 clients. Last year, the number of households was 140. The year before, it was 128. This includes people from all over the area. “If you stick a pin in Teaneck on a map, the families are coming from a 10-mile radius,” she said. Clients may be self-referred, come through the agency’s own clinical or job readiness programs, or be referred by other agencies.
The Teaneck pantry is “stocked like a supermarket,” she said. “Families shop for what they need.” In addition, since it’s by appointment only, and only one person shops at a time, people’s privacy and dignity are respected. “We provide one person with enough time to come and go,” she said. “There is nobody who comes who doesn’t need it.”
When clients come, the agency takes the opportunity to do a thorough assessment of them, reviewing employment, budget, and what a sustainability plan might look like.
“We’ve also started offering meal replacement snack bags for clinical clients — any day every day,” Ms. Fleischer said. “We consulted a nutritionist. Kids were coming in hungry. It’s open to everyone — we would give it to anyone who asked — but 25 percent of our child clients have requested snack packs.”
Ms. Fleischer said the pantries get their food in several ways. “We’re blessed to have communal partners — synagogues and other organizations — do fundraising on our behalf. We’re also a partner of the Community Food Bank of New Jersey and get direct donations.” JFCS is hoping to put in a fridge and freezer in its Teaneck office so it will be able to offer meat, dairy, and eggs, “if we can get it.”
The Fair Lawn pantry initially will offer only dry goods, because it will not have a refrigerator. It will be run by a food pantry manager and staffed by Americorps VISTA volunteers. “As an agency, we are incredibly honored and humbled to provide this service to the community,” Ms. Fleischer said, and “we’re hopeful and optimistic” that the venture will be successful.
Fair Lawn’s Mayor Lisa Swain said she is happy to welcome the new pantry. “Many people today are in need of extra help from time to time, and we are grateful these services are conveniently located in Fair Lawn and will provide much-needed assistance,” she said.
Rabbi Andrew Markowitz, associate rabbi at Fair Lawn’s Congregation Shomrei Torah, said that the synagogue and the Fair Lawn community “are lucky” to have the services of the new pantry. “Unfortunately, the needs of our community are great and JFCS provides important leadership in bringing these critical services to our community.
“In the Ha Lachma Anya paragraph of the Passover seder, we recite ‘This is the bread of affliction our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat,’” he continued. “This declaration is made at the beginning of the seder to teach us that a Jew cannot feel free at his seder unless he or she has ensured that everyone has enough to eat for the holiday. The notion of ensuring that ‘all who are hungry come and eat’ applies all year round.
“We at Shomrei Torah look forward to continuing our partnership with JFCS on this and other worthy projects in the future,” Rabbi Markowitz added.
For more information, or to become involved in the Fair Lawn Food Pantry project, email the food pantry’s manager, Sari Schnipper, at firstname.lastname@example.org.