PLAINFIELD, NJ — Since the pandemic started, Ruth Hazelwood has looked for three different criteria in buying groceries: What stretches, what fills and what’s healthy.

It hasn’t been easy. The North Plainfield school bus driver has faced reduced working hours and consequentially, slimmer paychecks. So along with thousands of other residents in the area, she did something she would have never imagined doing: Using a local food drive.

“This brings your pride to a halt,” Hazelwood said while loading food into her car at a food distribution hosted by Union County. “I never would have thought I would be in this situation.”

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While lines wrapping outside of supermarkets and empty shelves have subsided, food insecurity in the state has not. Every county is expected to see rises in food insecurity, according to a report issued earlier this week from the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, and in Union County, food insecurity rates have risen from 8.3% pre-pandemic to 12.9%.

Compounded by an 11.2% August unemployment rate, it has created an urgent need for residents to fulfill one of their most basic necessities.

“Food insecurity remains a major concern among many families,” said Freeholder Chairman Alexander Mirabella in a press release. “This distribution was planned for Plainfield in order to provide some assistance to residents in the western part of Union County that have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Drawn by the prospect of apples, yogurt and more, people across the county gathered at Cedar Brook Park on Saturday for the food distribution, where a line of cars snaked throughout the park as far as the eye could see. Around 65 employees and volunteers helped distribute the roughly 100,000 pounds of food, carrying boxes and bags into people’s cars or assembling packages filled with food. 

Debbie-Ann Anderson, the human services director for the county who helps run the distribution, expected the food supply would be depleted by the end of the day, meaning around 5,000 people would get food. But it could also mean some in line would not get food they needed — an unfortunate reality, which spoke to the depth of the issue. 

“The need people have has increased because of the pandemic,” Anderson said. “It's only going to grow, because more people aren’t working, can't pay bills, and they can't put food on the table.”

Many recipients said the financial fallout of the pandemic, either being laid off or facing reduced hours, brought them to a food distribution event for the first time ever.

“We still need to make ends meet since we've had to endure more since the pandemic came about,” said Tony Giles, a Plainfield resident, who held a part-time job at NJ Transit but faced reduced hours since the pandemic started. “It's been stressful.”

Anderson said the food drives would continue throughout the end of the year, though it could be renewed. She noted that demand has been higher since the start of the program, with some cars lined up for the distribution that day as early as 7:45 a.m. (The official start time was 9 a.m.). 

Despite the financial hurt and need, some saw a silver lining to it all. Hazelwood said she’s learned to not take things for granted, and recognized to mitigate food waste that she wouldn’t have thought of before.

“The pandemic was an eye-opener in many different ways,” she said.

Email: danieljustinhan@gmail.com | Twitter: @danieljhan_ | Instagram: @D.han