Before the pandemic, the Corner Market Food Pantry at Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey was providing food to about 70 families. Since then, that number has grown tenfold, presenting a serious supply challenge for JFCS.
Linda Poleyeff, the agency’s community outreach social worker, called Yosef Gillers to see if he could help.
Mr. Gillers, 35, is founder and co-director of GrowTorah, a nonprofit that runs educational garden programs at 25 Jewish schools, camps, and Jewish community centers in New Jersey, New York, Texas, Maryland, Illinois, and Georgia.
Hands-on work in the gardens is complemented with a weekly lesson from a GrowTorah staffer about relevant Jewish values such as environmental stewardship, compassion for animals, and sharing resources with those less fortunate.
Begun as a pilot in 2014 at the Frisch School in Paramus, GrowTorah now has other locations in Bergen County, including Ben Porat Yosef and Yavneh Academy in Paramus, Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, the Moriah School in Englewood, and the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly; it’s also in the Bronx, at SAR High School in Riverdale.
This summer, GrowTorah ran two one-week camps, for a total of 120 kids, on an organic farm in New City.
“Since our inception we’ve always donated a large portion of what we grow to local food pantries,” Mr. Gillers said. “When Linda Poleyeff reached out, it was a beautiful, serendipitous moment because the other local food pantry we had been working with closed and we needed a new place to bring our produce.”
Since the start of the summer, GrowTorah gardens have provided approximately five to 10 pounds of fresh vegetables every week or two to the Corner Market Food Pantry.
Although schools were closed over the summer, staff members and college summer interns tended the gardens; GrowTorah cleverly called the internships sponsored by OU Impact Accelerator “inchwormships.”
The picked veggies are taken to Mr. Gillers’s Teaneck home for packing and delivery to the JFCS office at 1485 Teaneck Road.
“It’s a mix of everything we grow: herbs such as chives, oregano, thyme, basil, and mint; and vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, zucchini, okra, and potatoes,” Mr. Gillers said. “This week’s donation was carrots, radishes, and string beans.
“This is a perfect symbiotic partnership, because one of our core values is living tzedakah. We are always looking for the right place to bring our produce so that the students can really learn firsthand the value of tzedakah. Having a local Jewish food pantry that serves both Jews and non-Jews is beautifully aligned with our mission. It’s wonderful.”
Michele Wellikoff, JFCS’s chief development officer, said the partnership with GrowTorah also aligns with the licensed mental health agency’s mission, “because we’re based on Jewish values. People are so happy to get the veggies, and when they find out where it’s from, they’re even happier to know there’s a deeper lesson to it.”
Ms. Wellikoff said the pantry is constantly seeking new sources of grocery items to feed the 700 families who depend on it.
“We were getting some fresh fruits and vegetables, but they are expensive and perishable so we’re always looking for more,” she said. “We’ve been told that GrowTorah’s mint and cherry tomatoes are particularly amazing and in high demand.”
She explained that food insecurity often is a symptom of other problems. The food pantry therefore not only serves existing agency clients but also has become a gateway for families who could benefit from other services that JFCS can provide, from career counseling and mental health counseling to kosher meals on wheels and other forms of assistance.
“We rely on donations like what GrowTorah provides in order to continue supporting those in need,” Ms. Wellikoff said. “We are so appreciative.”
The Corner Market Food Pantry is open by appointment only and can deliver by prior arrangement. Anyone seeking further information or interested in organizing a food drive for the pantry should call JFCS at (201) 837-9090.