NEWARK, NJ — Late into a Friday evening in early April, Doug Freeman is run ragged from delivering fresh produce all over the South Ward. And a little bit of the North Ward. They needed some help over there, too.
Oh, and since the city was handing out ShopRite cards, Freeman, a community advocate representing the South Ward Republican District, and his volunteers reached out to see if they needed any assistance with that as well.
For the past two or three years, the South Ward and Newark Public Schools have partnered with Table to Table, a community-based food rescue program that collects prepared and perishable food that would otherwise be wasted and delivers it to organizations serving the hungry. But lately, at a time when many might abandon their usual volunteer work for self-isolation, the South Ward network and its leaders are kicking their efforts into overdrive.
“We’re working together. We have a great relationship with the different nonprofits and political parties within the community, our distributors are really stepping up on both sides and everyone realizes that we have to move together here,” Freeman said. “It’s all about unity.”
That unity extends beyond the physicality of Freeman’s “love bus,” as he calls it, a small blue school bus packed to the seams with the food leftover from whatever distribution site their community engagement person pinned down that week. Volunteers enforce strict social distancing as they hand out bulk bags of vegetables and wrapped meals — people now have to sign up for food on southnewark.com and stay in their vehicles.
Later, Freeman streams his drives through the Ward on South Newark District Information, the community’s official Facebook platform that has proved essential for assessing residents’ needs and sharing information during the crisis. Established about seven years ago, the page is now an instrument for community leaders to stay organized at a time when so many local governments are struggling to figure out how to meet the needs of all their citizens.
Freeman's sister, Maggie Freeman, a South Ward Advocate and program director for Weequahic Park Sports Authority, said that in a part of Newark that is often overlooked, information is proving to be power.
“Right now, there is a lot of joblessness. We have a lot of senior citizens that can’t get out of their homes,” she said. “We started a forum on Facebook, and this has been the platform to connect us together, because we saw that we just weren’t getting the information from the city level to the county to the state and so on. Sharing information has been our success story. With information, more people can take advantage of resources and get what they need.”
As city phone lines for emergency grocery assistance experience and the state’s unemployment system shudders under the weight of more than 500,000 applicants, the South Ward’s ability to do some of its own reporting is bringing food to people’s plates, faster.
As for fear of contracting the virus, it isn’t stopping volunteers from helping stop hunger as they heave crates and create factory lines for each vegetable to pack and distribute in bulk.
“If we’re not here, who’s going to be here? We have elderly people that need to eat. We have children that need to eat,” said Taquila Thompson with the Newark Community Street Team. “I have energy and I’m protected [by my mask and gloves], God has me here.”