In mid-July, the JFCS Mobile Food Pantry met an important milestone when the program distributed its 10,000th bag of food in the community.
The Mobile Food Pantry launched in January 2020 and grew quickly, with the initial roll out expedited by the onset of the pandemic. The JFCS Mobile Food Pantry includes two vehicles, the original mobile pantry truck and Poppy’s Pantry, a sprinter van which was purchased through a private gift in memory of Stuart “Poppy” Plotkin.
Both vehicles are out on the road every week and make over 20 distributions each month. Since its launch in early 2020, the mobile pantry program has made over 280 distributions stops across the Greater Mercer region. Distribution locations include a wide network of partners – community housing projects, schools, daycares, churches and a variety of social service organizations.
“When it’s 50 bags to a senior housing complex, 20 bags to a daycare facility, 60 bags to a school, it is incredible to see just how quickly we distributed 10,000 bags benefitting well over 30,000 individuals here in our community,” said Beth Englezos, JFCS Manager of Hunger Prevention.
Both the JFCS brick-and-mortar pantry and both mobile pantries continue to see high demand as the impact of the pandemic continues to be felt by the most vulnerable in the community.
“Our mobile pantry never stopped, even though it was a new program, we saw early on in the pandemic just how vital mobility was in getting food to food insecure individuals and families, now forced to lockdown for their safety,” says Michelle Napell, JFCS Executive Director. “We are prepared to maintain our high level of deliveries and growing to meet demand as we continue to see the financial fallout from the pandemic.”
Upgrades In the Office & On the Road
Through generous grants and the support of the community, JFCS was able to keep the mobile pantries stocked to meet the need.
“We took advantage of having most of our staff working remotely to reconfigure the offices space which houses our brick-and-mortar pantry to accommodate the expanded storage needs in maintaining our mobile program,” adds Napell.
Private grants supported the purchase of new refrigeration and freezers to store fresh and frozen items distributed through both the brick-and-mortar and mobile pantries. The JFCS pantry programs are designed as healthy, choice pantries; while the pandemic has limited the choice option, JFCS remains committed to the healthy pantry model. Taryn Krietzman, JFCS Pantry Coordinator, is also a registered dietitian and informs the selection of products regularly stocked in the pantries. Additionally, Ms. Krietzman will create monthly recipes and resources that are distributed to all pantry clients and made available in both English and Spanish.
When Poppy’s Pantry was added to the mobile pantry fleet, it was designed to be an extra vehicle to transport bags of shelf-stable goods and select produce on short distribution runs. In the spring of 2021, JFCS received funding through Mercer Street Friends Food Bank Center for Nutritional Health and Wellness’ Network Investment Initiative, made possible with help from The Community Food Bank of New Jersey and lead funding from the New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund and its partners. With this grant, the agency was able to have the van be converted to a fully refrigerated vehicle. Both vehicles are now able to transport fresh and frozen items at food-safe temperature to any location within the Greater Mercer region.
Preparing for the Next Phase
The JFCS mobile pantry programs continues to grow through a network of partners. The mobile pantry has made two distributions in partnership with the Muslim Center of Greater Princeton’s Hunger Van, which delivers hot meals to distribute to those in need. These distributions have brought the JFCS pantry across the river into Bucks County to churches and locations working with the Hunger Van.
“We know that, unfortunately, there are still so many deeply impact financially from this pandemic, and this impact will be felt for the months and years ahead,” says Napell.
A recent study by Legal Services of New Jersey’s Poverty Research Institute, demonstrated that the “true poverty” level in New Jersey is on average 2.5 times higher than the federal poverty line. The study considered actual cost of living compared to income. According to the study, in Mercer County, the true cost of living is almost 3 times what the federal government defines as the poverty line. In addition, recent data available through the National Low Income Housing Coalition shows that an individual working minimum wage at $12/hour must work 88 hours a week to afford a modest apartment.
“The numbers show just how dire a position people are facing,” said Englezos. “When you think about the true cost of living from housing to daycare expenses to car expenses to utilities, a monthly paycheck is often spent before any groceries are purchased. It’s devastating; devastating to a parent who must make the choice between a bill and a meal, devastating to the family who now face long-term effects on their health and overall well-being, devastating to a community where a significant portion of the population faces this situation day after day.”
Prior to the pandemic, the JFCS brick-and-mortar pantry would allow clients to access the food pantry monthly, by appointment. It has been open 5 days a week since spring 2020, and most clients make weekly visits to keep their households fed. Similarly, the JFCS mobile pantries have several regular distributions each month, sometimes more than once a month, to ensure that their resources are reaching those in need as often as possible.
How to Help
Throughout the month of August and September, JFCS is organizing “Stuff the Truck” events around the community to collect healthy breakfast foods to stock in the pantry. The first “Stuff the Truck” event is held in partnership with Trenton Thunder on Wednesday, August 4 at 6 PM. Community members are welcome to join JFCS at the ballpark and bring a donation item for the food drive. Ticket link and details about upcoming “Stuff the Truck” events can be found at jfcsonline.org/events.
“The first meal of the day truly sets the tone and gives you the positive start needed,” said Taryn Krietzman, RDN, Pantry Coordinator. “We’re hoping we can get the pantry well stocked ahead of the school year so that food insecure children and families can have a nutritious breakfast to count on before they start their day.”
Community members are also encouraged to “Plant-a-Row” for JFCS in their personal or community gardens. Several local individuals and groups, including West Windsor Plainsboro Girl Scout Troops, synagogue and church groups, have been harvesting fresh produce from their gardens to donate to the JFCS pantry. These donations have helped the pantry maintain variety in the produce distributed to clients. Plant-a-Row donations are accepted through the fall; those interested in participating may contact Taryn Krietzman at TarynK@jfcsonline.org.
And on Sunday, October 3, JFCS will be holding the 1st Annual Wheels for Meals bike ride fundraiser. All event proceeds will support JFCS food programs – the on-site and mobile pantry, food distribution services and senior nutrition programs. Find ride details at jfcswheels4meals.org.