Why NJ pantries and grocery banks are preparing for the ‘gritty’ winter

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Credit: (Food Bank of South Jersey)
The South Jersey Food Bank, like other parts of the state food aid network, is preparing for higher demand this winter.

Eggs are just an everyday item on supermarket shelves, but they’ve been a cause for celebration recently for a Cherry Hill pantry.

An unexpected shipment of 600 dozen eggs enabled the pantry to distribute two dozen to each of the 58 families that had attended a food distribution event last Wednesday.

Eggs are usually not available from the pantry, which takes food from the South Jersey Food Bank and distributes the food in standardized packages to the 130 or so families they feed each week.

“Eggs are one of those things like milk that everyone wants, but we rarely have because we don’t have the means to buy them,” said Janet Giordano, pantry manager at Cherry Hill Food & Outreach. “Everyone was so excited they got two dozen eggs.”

It happens regularly at the hundreds of other local free grocery distributors in Cherry Hill and New Jersey for people who have swelled in numbers from the coronavirus pandemic and who are not expected to return to pre-pandemic levels anytime soon to a lack of common foods.

Preparing for “a long recovery”

That means food banks and their community partners expect the demand for emergency food to stay high even as the pandemic recedes and more people go back to work.

Even before the Delta variant sparked a new surge in COVID-19 cases, the food aid network was planning to keep demand higher, a forecast confirmed by the effects of the highly contagious strain of coronavirus.

The network is now preparing for winter when demand usually increases with the holidays. This year, this could swell further with the withdrawal of additional unemployment benefits and the end of the state moratorium on evictions for non-payment of rent during the pandemic.

“My plan was for things to get a little better in November or December,” said Giordano. “That won’t happen.” I just think it’s going to be a long recovery. “

At Fulfill, a food bank serving Monmouth and Ocean counties, demand spiked in September as food prices stayed above pre-pandemic levels, forcing low-income residents, including fixed-income seniors, to look to pantries contact for help, according to a statement from interim co-CEOs Linda Kellner and Jim Kroeze.

Unemployment benefits, utility bills

Fulfill, which serves 215,000 people, including 70,000 children, expects a “gritty” winter as additional unemployment benefits run out for many, utility grace periods expire, and cases of COVID-19 rise, Kellner said.

The New Jersey Community Food Bank, the largest in the state with 15 counties, is well on its way to distributing food for a record 93 million meals in the current fiscal year, which began July 1. That’s 84 million meals last fiscal year and 50 million in the year before the pandemic broke out.

Carlos Rodriguez, president of the Community Food Bank, said the increase in food supply was due to the new wave of pandemics, the end of expanded unemployment benefits, and uncertainty about whether businesses and schools will stay open if infections continue to rise.

“We don’t know when this will go away, the economic impact of the Delta variant,” he said.

The New Jersey unemployment rate fell to 7.2% in August, the most recent month for which data is available. That’s well below its pandemic high, but still about double what it was before the pandemic, suggesting that emergency food demand will remain high for some time.

End of the eviction moratorium

If evictions resume after the state moratorium ends, more people could turn to blackboards looking for new housing, proponents say. “We know the rent eats up first,” said Rodriguez.

When asked whether the end of the moratorium will affect food demand, Rodriguez said, “We hope it doesn’t, but realistically we expect it to.”

South Jersey’s Food Bank, which serves four counties, also expects increased demand when the eviction ban ends, said Lavinia Awosanya, chief development officer.

“We know the first thing you try to do is to keep your household safe, to have a roof over your children’s heads,” she said. “Sometimes food becomes secondary. I won’t be surprised if people need food services when they are in a situation. We expect some of these people to turn to us for help. “

Food demand at the Pennsauken-based nonprofit has fallen from its pandemic high but is still 20% above its pre-pandemic level, Awosanya said. Between 2019 and 2021, food spending increased more than 500% due to increasing demand, higher food prices, and lower donations from businesses and individuals. The amount of food donated by the community decreased by 44% over the same period. In 2020 alone, food donated by the community decreased by 70%, according to the food bank. Its customers include more than 2,000 senior citizens.

Changes in the distribution of food

Since the pandemic began, the South Jersey Food Bank has reduced the number of food drives – previously inviting businesses and individuals to donate – to reduce the number of touches and reduce the risk of infection, she said.

Cherry Hill’s pantry has also been forced by the pandemic to discourage customers from choosing their own food in their building. Instead, they keep their cars outside and everyone gets identical, pre-packed bags with meat, products and other groceries in their open suitcases from employees or volunteers. “There’s no other way to do it if they don’t come in,” said Giordano.

She said about half of the families who came there had never used a pantry before the pandemic. Most are low-skilled workers like cleaners or manual workers who lost their jobs when the shops closed and are now using donated food to help out on their tight budget. At the beginning of the pandemic, some customers came from skilled trades, but their numbers have declined, Giordano said.

Officials from all three food banks said they expect to meet persistently high demand, but have asked for additional support from private and corporate donors of food and money.

“We all want to leave the pandemic behind and get some semblance of what we were used to, but the reality is that many families will long be digging out of this financial crisis and we continue to rely on it.” on our public and private partners to ensure that all of our neighbors are fed, ”said Rodriguez.

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