May 18, 2020

The lives of those in the Mercer County community were upended when social distancing guidelines and shut downs took effect in mid-March. It became quickly apparent that food was an area of serious concern – the availability, accessibility, and affordability of resources was almost immediately an issue facing those already in vulnerable positions.

“The increase in calls for food started not long after the initial state-wide shutdown,” says Michelle Napell, Executive Director of Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County (JFCS). “We stocked up on food for our on-site pantry and upcoming Mobile Food Pantry stops, as well as making sure we had resources prepared to continue our senior nutrition programs.”

JFCS is a non-profit, comprehensive social service agency that focuses on help, hope and healing in the Greater Mercer region. The agency serves those of all ages, backgrounds and faiths with mental health counseling, senior services, and a range of food distribution programs. From the early days of social distancing guidelines, JFCS has adapted all programs to better serve the changing and escalating need in the community. Through the use of technology and adapted procedures, all agency services have continued during this shut down.

Since March 16, JFCS has helped to feed over 2,250 people through its brick-and-mortar, Yvette Sarah Clayman Kosher Food Pantry, and the JFCS Mobile Food Pantry; provided grab-and-go hot lunches to 25-30 seniors four days a week; and continued delivery of 120 meals per week through Kosher Meals on Wheels to homebound seniors.

“Under normal circumstances, our brick-and-mortar and mobile pantries offer a healthy, choice-shopping experiences to our clients. At the brick-and-mortar pantry clients would make private appointments and make selections that match their personal and family preferences and diets. The same was true of the Mobile Food Pantry, where clients could select from a list of options by USDA nutritional category,” said Ms. Napell. “While we cannot offer the same choice experience at this time, we are staying true to the focus on healthy offerings and continue to provide fresh produce, sourced from local farms, and frozen meats, in addition to the pre-packed bags of shelf staples.”

The Mobile Food Pantry officially hit the road in January 2020, with a planned roll out of one stop per week during the first three months, then increasing to two stops per week through its first year on the road. The coronavirus expedited that timeline and the Mobile Food Pantry has been making 2 – 3 stops per week since mid-March, with demand growing.

“It is incredible how quickly word has spread. At the start of the shutdown, we connected with our existing partners and made sure that the local health departments, school districts, and community agencies knew about our resources,” said Beth Englezos, Manager of Senior Programs & Hunger Prevention. “Within a few weeks, we were connected with new partners including housing communities for adults with disabilities and low-income seniors, and the local school systems to help them support youth in the Title I program, as well as other families who are facing financial challenges due to job loss or reduced income.”

Seniors are one of the most at-risk demographics during the pandemic, and it was clear that seniors would be more severely impacted by social distancing guidelines.

“Our seniors are experiencing high levels of fear right now; the reports have been clear that older adults, in particular those who are already frail or have pre-existing conditions, face the greatest risk in contracting the virus,” said Ms. Napell. “Our Senior Services team receives new calls each week from clients, or those who have heard about our agency, seeking help accessing food.” 

JFCS transitioned its Kosher Café, a designated Senior Nutrition Site funded by the Mercer County Office on Aging to provide hot, nutritious meals to low-income seniors, to a grab-and-go format the week prior to the official state-wide shutdown. The Kosher Café has seen a 25% increase in attendance as more of the regular guests come more often and word spreads to others who need this resource.

The agency also maintains a Kosher Meals on Wheels (KMOW) program that supplies five meals per week to homebound older adults who wish to keep a Kosher diet. Through a recent emergency funding award by the Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks, the agency will be expanding the program to provide a total of 14 meals per week to the current KMOW recipients and expand the program to others who find themselves in need of food including Holocaust Survivors and seniors enrolled in JFCS services.

JFCS established a ‘Shop & Drop’ program wherein the agency matches a volunteer with a senior who expressed a need for help getting groceries. 

“Older adults are experiencing the same obstacles as many of us – difficulty securing delivery times from local stores and having limited options when placing orders. Additionally, seniors may not have reliable transportation or simply be afraid to venture into a store,” said Ms. Napell. 

‘Shop & Drop’ volunteers coordinate directly with the senior for their shopping list and a delivery schedule that works for them. The volunteer completes the shopping in the store and delivers to the doorstep of the senior for a no-contact transaction. The program is designed for seniors who do not have financial need but are facing difficulty getting out to a grocery store on a regular basis.

“I am incredibly proud of my staff, even as new challenges arise week after week with new guidelines, they have not faltered in their commitment to our clients,” says Ms. Napell. “In a time when help, hope and healing are needed more than ever, JFCS remains steady in our commitment to the community.”

For more information about program offerings, visit the JFCS website or call at 609-987-8100 Mon-Thurs 9 AM – 5 PM and Fridays 9 AM – 4 PM.