Combatting food insecurity
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Combatting food insecurity

Local groups fight pandemic effects by connecting with each other

The Community Food Bank of New Jersey organized emergency food distribution in Fairview, with the help of many local governmental agencies, towns, and volunteer groups.
(Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office)
The Community Food Bank of New Jersey organized emergency food distribution in Fairview, with the help of many local governmental agencies, towns, and volunteer groups. (Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office)

One of the unexpected ironies of this new pandemic life is the odd way in which our forced isolation from each other can bring us closer.

There are of course caveats, huge ones; the closeness generally is literally through glass; if not, it’s through layers of cloth, involves only veiled smiles and air hugs, set at a six-foot distance. (I still have no idea what six feet is; I have a feeling that sometimes it’s 12 feet and sometimes it’s a foot and a half.)

But if we can look at each other only online, then often we look more closely at each other; if we can’t get eye contact, then we are free to stare; surprisingly often we get to see the inside of each other’s houses, even if the contents of people’s bookshelves seem oddly … ambitious? Unlikely? Aspirational!

Meanwhile, just as we look more closely at each other individually, the general cracks in the infrastructures that prop up our lives come into fairly clear view. We’ve been getting a more intimate understanding of the role of class and race in our culture than is comfortable, along with a new knowledge of such things as the difference between supermarket and restaurant supply chains.

This new cracked landscape shows us a lot of brokenness; the damage that the economic collapse that covid is causing is terrifying.

We are learning that even in our seemingly prosperous community, there is real need; that was true even before covid, but now, with the unemployment rate skyrocketing and the hardships that follow that rate, it’s even more true.

Bergen County organized this assembly line of volunteer food packers at Fairleigh Dickinson University in collaboration with local organizations. (Tracy Zur)

But just as this devastation hit, so too has the human need for connection, and the desire for many people who can help to do so. The more we stay home, stare at our screens, and look at each other’s faces, the more our shared humanity comes into focus. And the more the connections between people turn into logical chains that connect organizations.

So — a long prelude to a short look at how local philanthropies, volunteers, and elected officials are working together to help fix this broken new world.

The Teaneck-based Russell Berrie Foundation has been working with nonprofit organizations in Bergen County, across the United States, and in Israel, for years; since the pandemic, it’s tailored its efforts to predict and provide for the short-, medium-, and long-term needs the organizations it helps are likely to face. Its president, Angelica Berrie of Englewood, is both a philanthropist and a serious student of philanthropy; her giving comes from both heart and head. She’s also a serious Jew, whose understanding of Jewish values undergirds her work.

Under her leadership, the foundation also has continued to fund local organizations; it has stepped up some of that funding in the last few months.

One of the groups that has a relationship with the Berrie Foundation is the Hackensack-based Bergen Volunteer Medical Initiative, which provides free health care to people who cannot afford it. One of the BVMI’s programs works both with people who have been diagnosed with diabetes and people who are pre-diabetic.

Idana Goldberg is the Berrie Foundation’s chief program officer. “The foundation has been interested in diabetes care and research toward a cure since its inception,” Ms. Goldberg said. “More recently, in the last five or six years, as our team has grown, we’ve started to think more about treatment and prevention, and to understand how the social determinants of health are so inextricably linked to both treatment and prevention. So we married that new understanding with the foundation’s interest in the community of northern New Jersey.

A BMVI patient receives a box of food delivered by a volunteer. (BVMI)

“The team did a lot of work to research the incidence of diabetes, and two years ago our trustees gave us the green light to start the Russell Berrie Diabetes Prevention Program.

“The premise is that if medical and philanthropic organizations collaborate more with community organizations, and work with them where they are, we help them address the underlying and exacerbating causes, including access to healthy food,” Kaarin Varon, the foundation’s program officer for the diabetes prevention program, said.

“So we looked for partners we trust to experiment with how we can meet the local needs for diabetes education, access to healthy foods, connections to farms, markets, and community gardens.”

That’s the background; it’s been going on for a few years now. “When the pandemic hit, we were able to connect more quickly with each other to get the food to where the need had increased.” That led almost immediately to food deliveries in Hackensack and in Garfield. “We see an intersection of things that we have cared about all coming to a head in this moment,” Ms. Varon said. “When we started, we understood some of the weaknesses in the systems in Bergen County. That’s why we were investing in it. The pandemic has revealed further weaknesses.” It also unearthed some possibilities.

“We found in a lot of ways that it comes down to our core principles about collaboration, and bringing the right people together. In a pandemic, everyone is in emergency mode,” Ms. Goldberg said. “We encourage our partners to look at what long-term solutions they can drive toward,” Ms. Varon added. “We think that it is critically important that community organizations are equipped and have the skills to take ownership of community health. That does depend on each organization having the ability to connect with each other and to establish policies that will benefit each other. We are confident that what we are doing now will have that long-term impact.”

Amanda Missey is the president and CEO of the Bergen Volunteer Medical Initiative, one of the organizations that the Berrie Foundations funds. As its name implies, the BVMI uses volunteer health-care workers to provide care for people who otherwise would not be able to afford to go to the doctor. The healthcare the organization provides is free to its patients. “We have about 150 volunteers, and half are clinical,” Ms. Missey said. “And we have very generous funders, like the Berrie Foundation. We get no government money and no insurance reimbursements. And we do constant fund-raising.”

This produce is inside one of the boxes from BVMI. (BVMI)

Here are some more numbers. “We have about 1,500 patients, and about one third of them either have diabetes or are pre-diabetic,” Ms. Missey said. “They are low-income and most of them are immigrants.” About 80 percent are Latinx, she said; BVMI also has a program specifically for Koreans, and the clinic has volunteers who speak about 25 languages, most of which they need occasionally to talk to patients. “They are coming into this with limitations on the food they have, or maybe they don’t even have food, and they don’t have a lot of knowledge about healthy eating,” she continued.

People who are obese are more likely to develop diabetes than people who are not, and people who eat unhealthy food are more likely to be obese than people who do not, so developing healthy eating habits is extremely important in controlling diabetes. But often new immigrants not only do not understand the risks of eating poorly, “but when they come here, they want to be like everyone else,” Ms. Missey said. If real Americans eat McDonalds, they can too. “So a lot of what both of our diabetes programs” — that’s the one for patients who have been diagnosed with diabetes, and the diabetes prevention program, for people who are likely to develop it but can ward it off — “are doing is teaching people how to eat differently. How to just go out and take a walk. Get some exercise. We have had excellent results with it.

“We do a lot of work about lifestyle and education,” Ms. Missey continued. “Our certified diabetes educator teaches medication management”; she helps patient learn how to use insulin, how to monitor their blood sugar levels.

The Berrie Foundation made a three-year commitment to a diabetes prevention program. It’s based on a yearlong CDC program and involves small group learning. “Our goal is to teach how to eat correctly and work exercise into your life,” Ms. Missey said. “Type Two diabetes can be prevented through lifestyle changes.” Another of those changes is stress reduction — not a particularly easy challenge just now (as if it ever were easy for anyone, much less low-income new immigrants facing food and job and life insecurity).

Until the pandemic, the program included classes, group walks in the park, trips to listen to the nutritionist at the ShopRite in Hackensack, and outings to the local farmers’ market on Saturdays.

Now, though, it’s all online. And to some extent “it’s a tradeoff,” Ms. Missey said. Members of the groups can’t bond as they once did because their relationships with each other are mediated through little boxes on screens. But on the other hand, the classes, which stream on demand, are far more convenient. “We’ll have to see what we do when all this is over,” Ms. Missey said.

The Community Food Bank and some of its partners organized an emergency food distribution in Fairview. (Tracy Zur)

The part of its program that cannot be done online is getting people the healthy food that they need. BVMI has been handing out boxes in Hackensack and in Garfield, with the support of the Berrie Foundation. The story of how they get that food leads to another connection. “Berrie is funding a consultant to a new food security task force that Bergen County has put together,” Ms. Missey said.

“Tracy Zur has been very involved in the county’s work, setting up a task force to rationalize the food pantries in Bergen County,” Ms. Varon, the Berrie Foundation’s program officer, said.

Ms. Zur, who lives in Franklin Lakes and is an active member of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, is a Bergen County freeholder. She has a longstanding interest in social justice, and she cares deeply about solving food insecurity in the county.

“As the whole pandemic began, we — that’s the county, and me in my role as freeholder — started reaching out to community-based organizations to ask what they need. The conversations with food pantries were very illuminating.”

Ms. Zur is part of a task force to study food insecurity; most of the other members are the heads of local pantries.

There are about 80 food pantries and other organizations in the county that distribute meals. Until now, the cooperation between them had been sporadic; they’re mainly small, scrappy, and understaffed. Also, “very few of them were connected to other, larger sources of food, like the Community Food Bank of New Jersey or Table to Table. And they’ve been struggling with volunteers, because many of them are senior citizens, who now are staying at home. And a lot of the food was people dropping cans off on their way to church, and now there is no more church.”

A BVMI patient and her daughter are in their kitchen before covid-19 began. (BVMI)

The task force’s first job was to listen. Ms. Zur learned a lot, she said.

“Different pantries are handling this in different ways, and that made me realize the need for the county to step in, to convene the group, to test out best practices to help connect the dots. That’s because inevitably there are ways in which we can do it more efficiently, more effectively, and more compassionately by working together.”

“It was brought to my attention by Jewish Family and Children’s Services” — the northern New Jersey group affiliated with the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, which includes a kosher food pantry among the services it offers, and which has a representative on the task force — “that most people were going to four or five food pantries to meet their needs in the course of a week.

“That was before the pandemic. Particularly in the age of covid, that seems untenable. And the nutritional perspective has been just on food, not on the right kinds of food.

“The other piece that came very clear is that the pantries are seeing unprecedented needs in communities where you would not necessarily expect to see those needs. They were seeing three times the need in their food pantries since the pandemic.”

Food pantries traditionally have relied on donations of both food and money; they use the money to shop for food. “Every pantry has different connections,” Ms. Zur said. Some are better than others at getting donations from philanthropic and corporate supporters. Most can benefit from sharing best practices, and from economics of scale if they can shop in bulk.

Freeholder Tracy Zur is at the first meeting of the Bergen County Food Security Task Force on July 15. (Tracy Zur)

“This effort is trying to get everyone to the table — both literally and figuratively. It is connecting the food providers, our philanthropic partners, and our corporate neighbors to the food pantries, and connecting the food pantries to each other.”

Ms. Zur gave an example of that connection. “One of the food pantries got a huge shipment of milk, and was able to share it,” she said. “This crisis has heightened the need for cooperation.” It’s also aided it, “by building an infrastructure, so we can get to the larger issues of how we can provide ample food that is both nutritious and sufficient for the families in need.”

The need is great, she said. “Nearly 10 percent of Bergen County was unemployed at the height of the pandemic. Our board of social services has been working on steroids, handling applications for food stamps and general assistance.” And of course we don’t know what will come next; the virus is not going away in many parts of the county infections and deaths are going up, “and as the $600 unemployment goes away” — that’s the weekly sum that Congress provided to the unemployed as the pandemic surged, and that the Senate Republicans are trying to cut — “and as foreclosure and eviction procedures are no longer forestalled” — another result of legislation running its course — “we don’t know what we will see.”

The numbers of people in need in Bergen County, as in the rest of the country, have gone up during the pandemic, but “for many, this was a problem that existed before. There always have been people who are hungry here. There always have been pockets of real need. For the six years that I have sat on the board of social services, there always have been people getting SNAP” — that’s the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly knows as food stamps — “in every town in the county, including Alpine and Franklin Lakes. People don’t realize that their neighbors are hurting, but this has brought it into focus.

“In Tenafly, they are doing 125 meals a night. The Triboro food pantry in Park Ridge normally serves about 30 meals; now it is serving more than 100 families. In Fairview, what they used to do in a month they are now doing in a day.

“This is just a snapshot, but it is really significant, and it is happening both in places where we expect to see it and in places where we do not expect to see it. Our food pantries really are in the front line.”

A BVMI volunteer delivers a health meal to a mother and daughter during the pandemic. (BVMI)

Some good — maybe much good — can come out of this, Ms. Zur hopes. “The task force is not just about giving people food — which is important, and vital — but it’s about the underlying challenge of making sure that they are connected to the social services they need, maybe the job center or applying for food stamps or finding affordable child care.

“The crisis definitely draws the focus on the disconnect.”

Now, however, “everyone is working with such a full heart. By working together, we can go farther, not just dealing with this crisis but in fixing the infrastructure and addressing the problem in a more holistic way.”

When it comes to nutrition, to get back to the Berrie Foundation and the BVMI, “We have to be sure that people aren’t just getting food, but that they’ll be getting healthy food. We don’t want to create the next generation of diabetics. We want to provide balanced nutrition, access to produce and dairy and meat. Those are the biggest holes in our food chain right now.”

When this crisis is over — and someday it will be, although it would be foolish to predict when — “this is going to leave scars for a long time, and we will have to be prepared to help our community through that,” Ms. Zur said. But they’ll be armed with the connections they’ve made, and their understanding of how cooperation helps.

And yes, there is a Jewish thread to this work, that runs from Angelica Berrie to Tracy Zur, connecting everyone along the way. “This is the whole concept of tikkun olam,” of fixing the world, Ms. Zur said. “We have to repair the world. And that has to start with helping our neighbors.”

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