Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County never anticipated just how vital mobility would become in the inaugural year of the Mobile Food Pantry. After one full year on the road, the mobile pantry has benefited 17,877 individuals across Mercer County through 140 distributions.
The mobile pantry program launched in late January 2020, with the first distributions made through February and early March. In mid-March, the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the community and JFCS pivoted plans in line with the changing needs.
“The world shifted, and we were ready,” says Michelle Napell, JFCS Executive Director. “When everyone was scrambling to keep their shelves stocked in the early days of the pandemic, and the most vulnerable populations – seniors, low-income communities – were hit even harder, our Mobile Food Pantry was there to fill a growing need.”
Planning for Everything, Then Pivoting for a Pandemic
The Mobile Food Pantry was designed to bring the choice experience of the JFCS on-site pantry on the road. However, during the pandemic, the process has been modified in line with health and safety regulations. Bags are pre-packed with non-perishable pantry staples as well as frozen and fresh meat, cheese and produce. JFCS mobile pantry staff work with each distribution partner to deliver the bags in a way that works best for their constituents – at some locations, clients pickup directly from the mobile pantry with organized waiting areas to maintain social distance, and other locations have the JFCS team drop off all bags to one designated site coordinator who handles distribution to the clients.
“While we have not been able to utilize the choice model of the pantry, we have worked to find ways to add extra value through our current delivery model,” says Taryn Krietzman, RDN, Pantry Coordinator. “Each month, I prepare a nutritious and simple recipe using pantry basics and seasonal fresh items we are able to include in the bags. Recently, we have also included information about where to find COVID-19 testing and vaccination information and sites.”
The world shifted, and we were ready…in the early days of the pandemic, and the most vulnerable populations – seniors, low-income communities – were hit even harder, our Mobile Food Pantry was there to fill a growing need.
It has been inspiring to grow this network of support with other agencies committed to our same goals of help, hope and healing.
Growing a Network of Support Across Mercer County
Distribution partners for the mobile pantry range from churches, to low-income housing for seniors and families, to housing for adults with disabilities, to schools, to community organizations, with new partners being added each month.
“In the midst of such challenging times, it has been inspiring to grow this network of support with other agencies committed to our same goals of help, hope and healing,” said Beth Englezos, JFCS Manager of Hunger Prevention. “Through strong partnerships, we have been able to reach even more residents of Mercer County.”
The mobile pantry had a planned roll out of two distributions per week. When demand quickly spiked in the early stages of the pandemic, the distribution schedule ramped up to meet the needs.
“The speed at which the program grew was directly attributable to the immediate and severe impact of the pandemic on vulnerable communities,” said Englezos. “Our plan was to average two stops per week over the first year as we developed a network of partners and refined our process. We are regularly on the road 3 – 4 times each week, and our network continues to grow.”
The Power of Community in a Crisis
“One of the main goals of the mobile pantry is reaching people in their communities who are not able to get to our pantry or other resources in the area. However, there are still many homebound clients within these communities.
There is a gentleman at one of our client pick-up stops who volunteers as a helpful neighbor and brings groceries directly to the doors of people who are not able to make it down to the Mobile Food Pantry. We get as close as we can, but he goes the extra mile.”
Taryn Krietzman, RDN, Pantry Coordinator
“We can’t thank you enough for the work JFCS does for our families. You should know that you make a direct and positive impact to our students’ and families’ well-being and we are very grateful for your generosity and good will. We count ourselves extremely lucky to work alongside JFCS.”
Elizabeth Gura, M.S., School Counselor, Millstone River School
What you are doing is directly impacting the community and together we are doing the work. Thank you again and again for help!
Taylor Block, Panther Pantry, Paul Robeson Charter School
Preparing for the Road Ahead
In addition to an increased delivery schedule, the mobile pantry fleet also grew. In November, JFCS purchased a van, now names Poppy’s Pantry. The van purchase was funded by a private family foundation in memory of Stuart “Poppy” Plotkin.
“The second vehicle allows us to reach even further into the community by accommodating distributions of all sizes and giving us more flexibility when picking up donations from local food drives or other supplies,” said Napell.
JFCS remains poised to adapt the mobile pantry program in the coming months as the situation surrounding COVID-19 evolves.
“First and foremost, we remain committed to providing nutrient-rich foods to the community. We hope to return to a choice model as soon as possible as it provides not only a sense of autonomy and empowerment to those we serve, but also reduces waste, when clients can select items they know their family enjoys,” says Krietzman. “In the short term, we have started to vary protein options offered to clients and allow them to make those selections at distributions sites which allow for this interaction. One by one, we will return more choices to the hands of the clients.”
“The pandemic has brought to light the severity of existing need right here in our Mercer community; many of those we serve were in vulnerable positions even before the pandemic,” says Napell. “We are ready to adapt with each phase and will be here for our entire community on the long road back to ‘normal.’ ”