Food insecurity in the region has skyrocketed 71 percent during the pandemic, according to Bergen County Commissioner Tracy Zur.
“We currently have 103,000 residents in one of the 50 wealthiest counties in the country who do not know where their next meal is coming from,” she said.
“That means one in nine Bergen County residents are food insecure and it is estimated that 30 percent of them are children. We have residents in all 70 of our municipalities who are struggling and who are receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.”
In response to this staggering need, volunteers from the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey ramped up the federation’s annual March Mega Food Drive to unprecedented heights.
The drive collected nearly 10,000 pounds of items, which will stock 13 food pantries in Bergen, Passaic, and Hudson counties.
In addition, families prepared 5,000 “snack packs” to be distributed through 10 local organizations, such as Boys & Girls Clubs, to ensure that children don’t go hungry on weekends. The drive also garnered individual and corporate sponsorships and monetary contributions totaling about $60,000 to fund grocery gift cards for cash-strapped residents.
Geri Cantor of Woodcliff Lake, co-chair of the food drive committee, said the success of this year’s campaign was unprecedented. “I think people don’t know about food insecurity in their own towns and their own backyards,” she said. “It was eye-opening for me too. We had to think out of the box and be creative about how to collect this year and make it bigger than ever.”
Ms. Cantor said that the pandemic had put a stop to her usual community volunteering activities. By January, she was feeling isolated and eager to find a way to help others despite the continuing need for social distance. “Co-chairing the food drive was my way to combat this depressing challenge and feel I was making a difference,” she said.
Ms. Cantor and her co-chairs, Yael Rabitz of Teaneck and Tiffany Kaplan of Demarest, mobilized committee members starting in January to publicize the drive across their social-media networks and in their neighborhoods, local libraries, schools, and synagogues. Some stores and corporations also agreed to be collection points.
“This year we got kids more involved,” Ms. Cantor said. “They usually drop off food and fill up bags for us, but this year we reached out to middle-school and high-school students to get engaged in food collections, and we’ve never done that before.” Members of the BBYO Jewish youth group also took an active role.
Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, committee co-chairs and members Pam Bern, Meredith Conen, Dara Garcia, Anat Lavie, Michal Levison, Tracy Limbardo, Melissa Rosenberg, Leslie Smith, Laurie Ann Weinstein, and Marla Zagelmeyer encouraged people and institutions to participate in any way that suited them.
“Every school and shul I reached out to responded in some way,” Ms. Rabitz said. “In my congregation, Arzei Darom, we decided to connect the food drive to Purim. There wasn’t one prescribed way to do it.”
The federation also offered a “blue-bag challenge,” providing blue shopping bags for people to fill with groceries and deliver to committee members’ homes. Each participant was encouraged to ask 10 friends to fill blue bags. The snowball effect paid off handsomely in thousands of bags being filled, Ms. Rabitz said.
“People were constantly dropping blue bags at my house. All the committee members opened their houses to this so that people didn’t have to schlep their bags to the federation’s offices in Paramus. I took trunk load after trunk load.”
Approximately 1,000 square feet of conference-room space at JFNNJ was covered with bags before they were distributed to food pantries.
Shara Nadler, the manager of the JFNNJ Volunteer Center, said that this year’s March Mega Food Drive “was more than a food drive; it was a movement that brought all of us together to make the biggest impact possible, and we did. We collected about 30 percent more than in prior years.”
Ms. Nadler noted that the federation is well positioned to rally a broad communal response in tough times. “There was a sense of urgency and determination to help those who are less fortunate,” she said. “The empathy and compassion in our community really came through. During a time when you feel so little control, this was a way to make a big impact.”
The pet food aspect was new this year.
“In December, when we started planning the food drive, I spoke to some of the food pantries and listened to their needs,” Ms. Nadler said. “They told us their numbers were doubling and they were also hearing requests for pet food because families that are challenged to feed themselves are struggling to feed their pets. So we decided to do both. We knew if we put it out there, our volunteers would rise to the challenge — and they did.”
The challenge is huge.
Ms. Zur’s statistics show that in Bergen County alone, Jewish Family Services is providing food for some 430 families, compared to 75 before the pandemic. The Triboro Food Pantry in Park Ridge — serving the relatively affluent boroughs of Woodcliff Lake, Montvale, and Park Ridge — went from 30 to 212 families needing assistance.
“The City of Garfield is doing emergency food distribution three times a week, involving hundreds of cars each day,” Ms. Zur added. “Fairview’s Franciscan Community Center — one of the beneficiaries of the federation’s March Mega Food Drive — was at 30 families pre-pandemic and is now over 478 families comprising more than 1,800 individuals.”
The Center for Food Action, a large nonprofit headquartered in Englewood with sites in Hackensack, Mahwah, Ringwood, Saddle Brook, and Bergen Community College in Paramus, served 23,404 households in 2019 and 40,546 in 2020.
It was the Center for Food Action that asked the federation to include snack packs as part of the food drive this year. Each bag contains eight items intended to help tide children over during the weekend in food-insecure families. Last year, CFA distributed 35,000 snack packs.
“My committee had to find a way to do this without social contact,” Ms. Cantor said.
The solution was to solicit “host families” to prepare and cover the cost of 48 packs apiece. They could then drop them off or request pickup. “Host families put together 1,000 snack packs in January, 1,000 in February, and 2,000 in March. We also packed another 2,000 to be dispersed through other agencies,” Ms. Rabitz reported.
All told, the March Mega Food Drive far exceeded its goal of collecting 8,000 pounds of food and distributing 3,000 snack packs.
“It was immensely powerful,” Ms. Rabitz said. “I found it so gratifying to see how all the parts of the drive came together. This was a really positive, optimistic, uplifting project.”
Ms. Zur spearheaded the formation of the Bergen County Food Security Task Force to ensure that some 80 food pantries and emergency food providers have supplies to meet the current demand and can form sustainable partnerships to meet these needs for the longer term.
“Previous data has shown us that it could take 10 years to return to pre-recession levels of hunger in our community,” she said. “Only through the engagement of all of our partners our civic, religious, corporate, and academic organizations will we be able to eradicate hunger in our community.”