MORRISTOWN, NJ -- Carolyn Lake was promoted to Executive Director of the Interfaith Food Pantry (IFP) in January 2019. The Interfaith Food Pantry is located in Central Park, Parsippany, with a satellite location on Speedwell Avenue in Morristown. Lake began volunteering at the IFP in 2002 and has made it a personal mission to raise awareness and serve those in need. It is during her tenure at IFP and in her various roles there that the IFP has expanded its primary facility to the 14,000-square-foot building in Central Park.
The IFP also has gone mobile. The mobile IFP extends support services into more distant parts of Morris County, assisting smaller food pantries and reaching senior living hubs.
TAP: How did you get involved with the IFP? How many years have you worked here?
Carolyn: Back in 2002 I was taking time off to raise my youngest daughter when I heard about the IFP at my church. I had never really thought about local hunger. I really had no concept of the problem that existed right here in our neighborhoods - until I did. The Deacon at my church was telling the story of a woman who had been evicted from her home and he gave her a bag of food. He was bewildered that she was taking most of the food out of the bag, then she explained to him that she didn’t even have a can opener. That story got my attention, and when he went on to talk about the number of families and seniors who were struggling in our neighborhoods, it really struck a chord with me. Wanting to make a difference, I signed on to volunteer and began as a food pickup and home delivery volunteer. A few years later I had mentioned to Rosemary Gilmartin, who was the Executive Director at that time, that my daughter would be starting kindergarten and I had planned on re-entering the workforce. She offered me a part-time job that was really flexible as the Community Outreach Coordinator in 2005, and that was it. I loved the job, loved the people, and was hooked. I felt challenged and rewarded and held many positions here in programs, operations, development and finally in January of this year, was appointed executive director by the Board following Rosemary’s retirement.
TAP: Would you discuss some background on the IFP?
Carolyn: The Interfaith Food Pantry and Resource Center began 25 years ago by a small group of volunteers who recognized there was a need among many low-income families and seniors living on fixed incomes for supplemental food. The group coordinated the food closets at The First Baptist Church, Assumption Church, St. Margaret’s Church,in Morristown and Notre Dame in Cedar Knolls and began distributing food from the First Baptist Church. After a fire at the church, the IFP opened a new distribution center on Speedwell Avenue where we still maintain a small pantry. We warehoused the food in space on loan to us by the County of Morris on Hanover Ave for many years but as the need for services grew, we outgrew the space. In 2008, we launched a 2.7 million capital campaign to build a 14,000-square-foot Food Pantry and Resource Center here in the Central Park section of Parsippany, and we’ve been operating here since 2011. Then in 2017 we launched our Mobile Pantry program, which utilizes smaller food pantries and senior housing units in a hub and spoke model of food distribution that enables us to reach even more people throughout the county.
TAP: Would you discuss the mission statement of the IFP with our readers?
Carolyn: Our mission is threefold: one, to improve the health and well-being of Morris County residents in need by providing access to food, nutrition education and related resources. In other words, we understand the correlation between food insecurity and health problems such as hypertension, diabetes, obesity and learning difficulties. So, we take a holistic approach by offering nutrition education and wrap around services that keep people healthy and put them on a path to self-sufficiency.
The second part of our mission statement is to provide hands-on opportunities for neighbor to help neighbor. We firmly believe in engaging a community that truly wants to help. Not only does it lower staffing costs, but our volunteers become ambassadors for our program. We have about 250 “staff” volunteers who have regular jobs such as food distribution, home delivery, shelf stocking, sorting, etc., then we have groups that work with us sporadically. All told about 20,000 of volunteer hours are donated over the course of a year.
The third part of our mission is to educate the public about the issue of hunger in our area to help people understand the causes, possible solutions, and public policies that shape the food security landscape.
TAP: Who does IFP serve?
Carolyn: Sometimes people just need something to hold them over until their next check comes in or whatever source of income they have catches up to their expenses. Other times, especially in the case of seniors and people with disabilities, the need is long-term. About 45 percent of our households list salary as a primary source of income. They are between 19 and 50 years old and work in hospitals, schools, construction, and in offices and in many cases spend most of their income, in some cases up to 70 percent, on housing alone, leaving little money left over for food. The second largest group, about 15 percent, are seniors living on fixed incomes. About 13 percent have disabilities, and that group is followed by people in crisis … unemployed for short or extended periods of time or catching up on debt or medical bills.
TAP: How have the needs changed since you have been at IFP? What has most surprised you about those changes?
Carolyn: In 2017, we launched our mobile program, which has been the biggest change in how we reach people. Another factor is the growing awareness about the health effects of food insecurity and the need to bring healthier foods, specifically fresh produce, into the pipeline. And we get a lot donated, but we also spend money to bring these items in, and the logistics of handling fresh produce – storage, handling and transportation – can be challenging. There has also been a shift and a concerted effort toward sustainability in what we do.
One effort is our food rescue program, which supplies our clients with dairy, grains, frozen meat and other items, keeping them out of the landfills. Again, this contributed to the way we operate as logistics are critical in receiving and distributing these products versus non-perishable goods.
TAP: How does the IFP meet needs in the community that other food pantries do not?
Carolyn: We have a Free Farmers Market we offer every two weeks from both locations which are special food distribution sessions just for produce, low-fat dairy and grains. But people also have access to other services here that help them become more self-sufficient: We host other agencies on-site such as Single Stop which offers SNAP and Medicaid screening. Morristown Medical Center offers health services, the United Way provides free tax preparation and New Jersey Natural Gas and JCP&L offer utility assistance, just to name a few.
TAP: What is the IFP’s greatest need in order to help folks in our community?
Carolyn: Food and funds! About 65 percent of the 1.2 million pounds of food we distributed last year came from the public; houses of worship, businesses, schools, scout groups, farms, grocers and manufacturers who collect, grow, rescue and donate food to us. But of course we have bills like everyone else – utility, insurance, transportation, and when donations run short, food! The financial donations are critical to keeping our doors open and getting the food out to people.
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