SOMERVILLE, NJ - A drive down Grant Avenue on a Tuesday, mid-afternoon or early evening, offers an opportunity to reflect on the fragility of life and how, in an instance, things can turn from bad to worse.
On one side of the street, cars line at the curb in front of Emmanuel Church to pick up a week's worth of fresh vegetables, meat, household goods, cleaning supplies and other groceries intended for those in need; Volunteers beneath tents sort through boxes, crates and coolers assembling pallets at curbside for each car that pulls up, directed by volunteers in reflective vests wielding clipboards.
Over the past month, there's been a noticeable increase in new faces and the number of cars, because people have lost their jobs and money has gotten tight, according to Lois Bennett, founder and executive director of Feeding Hands, a non-profit that works with a broad network of donors to ensure adequate supplies each week. She estimates 40 percent of the people in line this past Tuesday were first-timers.
On the opposite side of the street is Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital/Somerset, where doctors and nurses working 12-hour shifts tend to victims of the coronavirus who are in special COVID-19 wards, hooked up to more than two dozen ventilators, fighting for each breath in a battle for their lives.
Around the corner, at the main entrance to the hospital on Rehill Avenue, a steady stream of SUVs, vans, delivery trucks and sedans pull up daily to the front doors to unload meals prepared by area restaurants to feed the appreciative staff inside. Thousands of people have made donations to several organizations that purchase the meals.
The hospital estimates over the past month, it has received $165,000 in food donations, everything from pizza, salads and fresh donuts to bar food, three-course meals and stir fry.
The juxtaposition is striking.
It's all a matter of life and death. Feeding Hands does its part of improve the quality of life for the individuals and families served, offering hope, to keep them on their feet, get them through the week, to restore normalcy. RWJUH/Somerset physicians and staff work tirelessly to do that and more in an effort to send their patients back to the life they were forced to leave behind when the virus struck.
Feeding Hands is a non-profit 501C3 corporation that began operations in 2014. Based in Hillsborough, Feeding Hands has partnered with the Emmanuel Church to serve the community.
"God put us together," Bennett explained. They were praying for a way to become more visible in the community; no one knew they were there." The church has been at the location for 75 years, Bennett said.
"I wanted to do something to give back," she said. "There's a lot of people struggling out there, and there doesn't seem to be enough people reaching out."
Feeding Hands began slowly, passing out postcards in laundromats and check cashing storefronts; word of mouth also helped spread the word. Their growth was paralleled by a growing number of donors. She singled out Trader Joe's and Target as reliable, generous supporters.
Last year, Feeding Hands distributed 100 tons of food and home supplies; this past Tuesday, they gave away 10.5 tons, according to Bennett.
Each week, she tweaks the process, trying to improve distribution at the pop-up food bank so that more people can drive away with their cars packed.
"We do it with empathy, connection and stewardship, our three core values," she said.
Over the course of the year, Bennett estimates 250 volunteers help out.
"It's people coming together to help the community, you can really see it happening," Bennett said. "We should be looking out for one another - I'm seeing generosity of the heart and spirit that I don't see in normal times.
"We need ore another, it's the ties that bind," she added. "There is a blessing in all of this - the understanding of just how interconnected we are.".
Pick-ups are pre-scheduled by appointment at the Emmanuel Church between 1-3 p.m. and 6-7:30 p.m. Tuesdays only.
Information is available online at feedinghandspantry.org