NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - The Rev. Douglas Shepler became pastor of New Brunswick's Second Reformed in April 2008 and by October had a food pantry running that quickly attracted people in need, including Rutgers University students.
“We had graduate students coming to us and they had a choice of paying their rent or paying for food,” Shepler said. However, those students stopped coming after hearing that other Rutgers students were volunteers in the Five Loaves pantry. “They were embarrassed,” he said.
What he and others in the city didn’t know was that his pantry was just one of a number of pantries springing up around New Brunswick from 2005 through 2010.
Today, city officials say there are 26 pantries in the city, including 16 registered Middlesex County Emergency Food Network, plus others run in city schools that give out food for children to take home during the school year. Rutgers University also runs its own to assist college students.
New Brunswick, which covers 5.7 square miles and is home about 57,000, - with about 36 percent of residents living in poverty according to the U.S. Census Bureau - has more pantries providing food than any other town in the county.
The next closest is Woodbridge, with about 100,000 residents and 12 food pantries, the second most in the county.
For a time many of the pantries were loosely organized, each provide resources but having little contact or coordination with the others.
“We were not sure how many pantries there were,” said Vinessa Dunzik, who has been director of the pantry at the city’s Emanuel Lutheran Church since 2003, taking over an operation that started years earlier.
To improve the effort of providing food, Jennifer Apostle, director of county emergency food networks, known as MCFOODS, worked with Lizanne Finston, then the director of Elijah’s Promise Soup Kitchen - now called Elijah’s Promise - to create the Feeding New Brunswick Network, a coalition of the pantries. Members meet monthly discuss the need for providing food: people needed food.
Dunzik sees a very simple reason for the expansion in the number of pantries, most of which are based in religious houses. There was a need to provide
“For some of the churches, it was to help some of their own members,” Dunzik said. The efforts expanded because more people from the neighborhood surrounding each church came looking for help.
Emanuel Lutheran was one of three city churches that first started providing dinners at Elijah’s Promise, which has expanded to a large operation with soup kitchen, culinary school, community garden, social service center and more.
Many of food-insecure residents often need access to places closer to the where they live, with pantries serving specific areas of the city.
“There are still some under secure pockets of the city,” Dunzik said.
Volunteers staff each pantry, and the hours vary at each one, with some open certain days of the week, but not others, and open some nights, or a weekend day.
“We have working poor in New Brunswick or people who don’t have transportation,” Mayor James Cahill said. He praises all the operation for doing a remarkable job, but he and others have a plan for a better way.
Currently all but one of the pantries prepare bags of groceries that clients can pick-up. Dunzik has seen volunteers filled bags and wondered if clients will will even be familiar with some of the items in the bags.
The system is different at the Second Reformed Church’s Five Loaves pantry, operating out of four packed basement rooms.
There clients can pick what they want from the shelves, in part because of the larger number of volunteers available to keep the pantry open more hours.
It is a method known as “client choice.”
More than a year ago, Cahill said, he and others in the food network began discussions of developing one large pantry, about 3,000 to 5,000 square-feet, that would have a staff and have more shelves.
It would be one where people would have a choice,” Cahill said. “It would add some dignity to the process.”
Developing such a pantry will probably take a few years.
Apostle, who has been director of MCFOODs for 22 years, said there were 15 pantries in the county when she started. Now there are over 100.
Clients can come once a month to a pantry, and can go to more than one pantry in that time period.
Summers, when schools are closed and not providing children with meals and donations drop off, are one of the most difficult times of the year.
On one recent July morning, the MCFOODs warehouse in East Brunswick 150 trays of bread to distribute. By 10 a.m. more than percent of all the trays were empty, with more than 20 pantries countywide having come to get their weekly allotment.
Donations usually pick up with the start of the school year in September, and continue through the holidays in December.
Each spring there are donation drives in school across Middlesex County.
Last April about 48 tons of food came in from school collections. That is careful allocated to pantries over the next few months.
“We’re just about out of food for the summer,” Apostle said. “This is only going to last us another month,” she said, looking at the largely empty shelves of the warehouse.
“The summer and the dead of winter are the dry times,” she said.