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Holiday Hunger: Food Pantry Struggles to Restock Shelves Emptied by Sandy

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Photos by Charley Falkenburg
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PATERSON, NJ – Patersonian Rosie Colon stood inside the bustling CUMAC food pantry with her eyes fixated on a small Entenmann’s raisin loaf sitting in the corner.

“I want that cake,” said Colon, her voice lowered. “I haven’t had cake in so long.”

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Colon has been coming to CUMAC once a month for 20 years. A regular client, she has noticed her grocery bags from the pantry getting increasingly lighter. As a mother of two, she recalled having to manage with a couple cans of tomato paste and a few cans of fruit.

Colon is just one of the many coping with the hunger crisis that has Passaic County’s largest food pantry struggling to keep its shelves stocked.  Already facing a devastating shortage, the impact of Hurricane Sandy forced CUMAC recently to give away their last cans from an October food drive that was supposed to get them through the holidays.

CUMAC relies heavily on food drives, particularly its largest annual Action Against Hunger drive, held every October by the North Jersey Media Group. This year it received 38,500 pounds of food, about 3,500 pounds less than usual, which it was banking on to keep the pantry full at least until January. Now that supply is completely gone.

While it continues to receive a generous amount of donations now to help storm victims, Reverend Pat Bruger is more concerned about people suffering from “giving fatigue.”

“The concern right now for most feeding programs is the long term; getting through the winter,” said Bruger. “Will donations still come in February? If it stops after the holidays, it could be a major challenge coming forth.”

CUMAC, which also serves as a depot for more than 40 county agencies, was facing a huge jump in need even before the hurricane.  It sees 2,600 people walk through its doors a month and continues to share with an increasing list of new food pantries that crop up to help the hungry.

Pantry Manager Michael DeVore has the job of explaining to families why they are getting less food.

“It don’t feel good,” said DeVore. “I tell them they can take it or leave it, but most take it and are happy with it.”

Now with Sandy victims added to its regular numbers, Bruger said people have been packed outside the building forming lines down the block, waiting hours to get in. No strangers to being busy around Thanksgiving, Bruger said this year the pantry stays open an extra hour and a half in response to the dramatic increase in clients.

“Will some of those in Sandy relief now become more regular clients? They may for a period of time because of the great needs they may have,” said Bruger.  “In Paterson, people lost two weeks of employment added on to their loss of food –for persons struggling, that’s a big issue.”

Like the other area pantries, CUMAC just started getting in Thanksgiving items such as turkeys and stuffing last weekend. While some make up Thanksgiving baskets for its clients, CUMAC does not. Instead, it adds whatever turkeys, chickens, stuffing and pies to their regular bags of food.

“This is just our work every day and we try to give them a little extra something to make the holidays more special,” said Bruger. She expects even more donations will come in after Thanksgiving.

While CUMAC continues to try and feed more with less, it’s worried this increasingly dire trend will make them unable to open their doors at all come 2013. CUMAC has only closed its pantry once in 2008 when the recession hit.

“It’s a constant concern. A lot of other pantries have reduced their hours, cap their number of clients a day or closed their doors for good,” said Stephanie Ames, CUMAC’s volunteer coordinator. “It’s a very scary time to be in the business of feeding the hungry.”

As a longtime client, Colon is also concerned about the shortage impacting her family, but knows there’s not much she can do about it.

“It sucks, but you just have to deal with it,” she added before darting toward the raisin loaf, asking CUMAC employees if she could keep it.

 

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