- Associated Press - Saturday, November 26, 2016

LAKEWOOD, N.J. (AP) - On the morning before Thanksgiving, Blanca Herrandez visited a food pantry in Lakewood, but many of the shelves that normally overflow with boxes and cans before the holidays were barren.

Though the 55-year-old single mother from El Salvador legally works in the United States, she makes so little money cleaning homes that she cannot afford to feed herself and the youngest two of her four children who live with her in Toms River. As a result, Herrandez regularly visits the Community Services food pantry at Catholic Charities in Lakewood, where she picks up plastic bags of groceries.

On Wednesday, she browsed shelves that usually hold mounds of bread and bagels, but now were empty. Storage areas normally piled high with nonperishable food were running thin on offerings.

Donations here, and at food pantries around the state, are unusually low this year, say charity workers. That’s left many soup kitchens struggling to feed the 1.1 million people in New Jersey who do not have enough food to eat.

“We’re not getting as many donations in food,” said Lisha Loo-Morgan, parish service program coordinator for Lakewood’s Community Services pantry, as she walked through the isles.

Despite the low donations, dozens of people walked inside seeking food.

“We’ve seen a reduction not only the quantity, but the quality,” Carmen Pagan, program director for the pantry, told the Asbury Park Press (https://on.app.com/2fCjIB3). “Where people would bring in a whole turkey dinner. we’re seeing that people are bringing in some of the cans but not the turkey.”

Charities are struggling to feed the needy due to a drop in donations. Other types of donations are also down, like Christmas toys for the 1,400 children whose families the pantry feeds, she said.

“We’ve had some groups come together and do drives… but the numbers are not the same,” said Pagan. “That means we have to limit what we are handing out to the communities.”

She estimates that donations are down 20 to 25 percent compared to previous years.

Other pantries are experiencing similar problems.

“I had nothing on the shelf three weeks ago,” said Pat Leemann, director of the food pantry at St. Thomas Church in Brick. “Donations are definitely down this year.”

Food costs rose and more people are coming in for help this year than did in previous years, partly because another major food pantry in Brick, the Visitation Relief Center, closed last month, she said.

“It is worse than it has ever been,” said Leemann, who has worked to feed the needy for 14 years. “Most clients are doing the best they can… (but) their budgets don’t stretch far enough.”

More than 50 percent of people who visit soup kitchens in New Jersey are working, said Debra Vizzi, president and CEO of the Community FoodBank of New Jersey.

Others are low-income seniors, people with disabilities, some families with limited English and thus limited job prospects, and families who face an expensive major medical crisis, according to food pantry staff. Food insecurity is even developing on college campuses, Vizzi said.

“The face of hunger looks very different today,” she said. “Anybody can end up in a food pantry or in a situation where they need help.”

In New Jersey, 1.1 million people lack access to enough food to lead healthy lives, and nearly 340,000 of them are children, according to the hunger relief organization Feeding America.

About 132,000 food insecure people live in Ocean and Monmouth counties, and 40 percent of them are children or older adults, according to the FoodBank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties.

To make matters worse, funding for food banks from the federal Department of Agriculture’s Farm Bill has remained stagnant for years, yet the cost of food has climbed, Vizzi said. That has made charities even more reliant on the generosity of donors.

“We need to raise about $5 million by the end of December in order to meet our budget,” Vizzi said.

Next Tuesday, the Community Foodbank of New Jersey will hold a matching gift challenge, where an anonymous donor will match each dollar given to the Foodbank, up to $25,000. Each dollar received can produce five meals for hungry individuals in the state, so the matching campaign means the food bank could produce 10 meals for each dollar donated.

“Food is a prescription for health, for fellowship, and a prescription for family,” said Vizzi. “We don’t take for granted that what we do is not only feeding a tummy, but feeding a soul. And hopefully (we are) passing a baton to someone who will pass it somebody else.”


Information from: Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, https://www.app.com

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