Last month I wrote about a trip to Washington, D.C., with Planned Parenthood, during an unforgiving heat wave. Today I stayed closer to home — no marching, advocating, or meeting with “important” people — but it was almost as hot!
The people I met this time probably wouldn’t be labeled “important” when compared with those I visited in July. But the day was all about real people — old, young, male, female, white, black, Hispanic, and more. For nearly five hours, I helped distribute food in Moonachie to people who need it, for themselves and for their families. Working with the Center for Food Action, I met dozens of lovely folks, both fellow volunteers and those we came to help.
I learned a lot.
For example, everyone (except one sour-faced lady) smiled and said thank you. Some spoke English well, others did not; some brought their school-age children as translators. People took what they needed, despite how many packs of tomatoes, say, they were offered. Oh no, said one. If I take too much, it will go bad. One man refused orange peppers because he said they were bad for his arthritis. (Who knew?) One woman, child in hand, carried her groceries home on her head.
Perhaps most surprising — for me, as a synagogue-going Jew — I learned that while food collections at synagogues and churches still are useful, people now are being urged to look “beyond the bag.” CFA’s director of operations, Irwin Vogelman, said that food drives are no longer what they used to be — perhaps because of the dwindling size of many once-vibrant but now declining congregations.
Lori Oliff, the Center’s “Snack Pack” coordinator, said that money donations and supermarket gift cards actually are preferable to food donations, because the CFA “can make a dollar go much further with our ability to purchase at great discounts.” With money and gift cards, CFA can buy the most-needed foods — from peanut butter and canned tuna to low-sugar cereal and baby food — and also supply eggs, cheese, and fresh produce.
(I remember volunteering at the Englewood center one year and finding that there were an inordinate number of cans of yams and cranberry sauce, as well as boxes of stuffing mix. While community members generously emptied their cabinets after Thanksgiving, little of that donated food contributed to a healthy diet.)
CFA also is taking increased advantage of the resurgent interest in community gardens. Not only does it have one of its own, but Ms. Oliff said they receive “thousands of pounds” of produce from other gardens.
Mr. Vogelman has established partnerships with other food providers, like the Community Food Bank, which provided much of the food we distributed in Moonachie. He also gets bulk donations from supermarkets such as Shoprite and Trader Joe’s, as well as from big-box stores like Costco, where damaged packaging recently got the group a large supply of fresh mangoes.
According to a recent study, more than 1 million residents in New Jersey, or about 11.8 percent of the state’s population, are “food insecure,” the term used by the USDA to refer to people who lack access to enough food to live healthy lives. (In affluent Bergen County, the rate is 10 percent.)
Even more unsettling, the rate of food insecurity among children is 16.8 percent.
To help meet this need, CFA, through its site locations in Englewood, Fairview, Hackensack, Mahwah, Ridgefield, Ringwood, Saddle Brook, and Bergen Community College Student XChange Center, distributes more than 70,000 emergency food and holiday packages to local families and individuals each year. Last year, the organization also provided 30,000 weekend snack packs to local children who participate in the federal school meals program during the school week but who might go hungry on weekends.
Yes, it was hot, and in all honesty it was somewhat physically challenging. But in the words of Lori Oliff: “Watching a little boy’s face light up when he received a banana made it all worthwhile.”