NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - Since the founding of Elijah’s Promise soup kitchen in 1989, Executive Director Lisanne Finston has seen the numbers of the hungry ebb and flow with the economy.
She’s also found that merely feeding those in need is not enough to end hunger or to fully nurture body and spirit.
To that end, she is working with corporate and city partners to develop a sustainable “food policy” aimed at replacing junk food with fresh produce, sprouting green gardens throughout the city, reducing diet-related maladies and feeding local employment growth.
A coalition that began meeting late last year and includes Elijah’s Promise, Johnson & Johnson, the New Brunswick Development Corp. (Devco), the city and other civic groups will hold a Community Food Alliance Forum at Sacred Heart Church on Monday, May 16.
The partners are looking for city residents willing to play a leadership role to serve as facilitators for the evening of round-table discussions aimed at determining community needs.
Training for facilitators will be held Monday, May 2, 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., at Sacred Heart, 56 Troop Ave. Bi-lingual residents are encouraged to get involved.
Since the economic recession hit in 2008, Elijah’s Promise has seen a 10 percent hike in those being fed at the soup kitchen, and now serves about 110,000 meals annually.
“This has been a recession that does not discriminate,” Finston said, noting that among those being fed are the newly-unemployed, others curtailing food purchases at home in order to stave off foreclosure, and new immigrants.
She said those defined by the federal Dept. of Agriculture as “food insecure” are forced to curtail meals to afford rent and utilities, or are unable to purchase fresh food and produce to cook at home, opting instead for cheaper fast-food alternatives, and sometimes skipping meals.
Because the challenges of those without enough to eat are not necessarily tied to homelessness, food insecurity “is subtle, it’s masked, it’s not in your face,” Finston said.
The partners in the food alliance are seeking long-term solutions that go beyond the food-pantry tradition of collecting and redistributing food donations and soup kitchen service.
Another problem is “food waste management,” which Finston described as the donation of such junk food as sodas and sweetened drinks, sugary desserts, and high-carb fillers like pasta for meals served at soup kitchens or given away at pantries.
Such charity often contributes to health problems, feeding growing incidents of obesity, diabetes and hypertension, Finston said.
Thus the alliance hopes to encourage the development of low-cost food co-ops, community gardens and education on healthy eating habits.
The group also wants to ensure that all children attending city schools take advantage of free breakfast and lunch programs and that all families who are eligible join the food stamp program.
“We’ve got some places in New Brunswick that could be considered food deserts,” Finston said, noting the scarcity of affordable grocery stores in many neighborhoods.
The city is taking steps to address that problem with a deal for opening a downtown grocer late next year.
Among those working with the food alliance is Jean Holtz, vice president of communications for Devco, a partner in the effort. The development firm is behind plans for the Fresh Grocer, to be part of the downtown Wellness Plaza, for which ground was recently broken.
“We’re a small city with a lot of resources,” Holtz said.
Next month’s forum will be the third held by the alliance, which in December held the first food forum at New Brunswick High School, followed by Partnership for Healthy Kids New Brunswick’s session on childhood obesity.