Addressing the Silent Epidemic: Food Insecurity in Mercer County

Guest Op-Ed Published in The Trentonian November 21, 2023

In the heart of New Jersey lies a shadowed reality that often goes unnoticed amidst our thriving communities—the silent epidemic of food insecurity. Mercer County, a region known for its cultural diversity and economic vitality, faces an escalating crisis that demands immediate attention.

As the Covid pandemic recedes, we are seeing the rapid spread of food insecurity across our region. Amidst our picturesque landscapes and vibrant neighborhoods, thousands of families grapple with the uncertainty of their next meal. Food insecurity, a multifaceted issue, extends its reach into the lives of increasing numbers of the vulnerable—the elderly, children, and working-class families struggling to make ends meet.

The magnitude of this crisis has been exacerbated by recent events, including soaring living costs, the end of pandemic relief programs, a lack of affordable housing, and unforeseen challenges facing many families.

Statistics paint a stark reality. Over 10% of Mercer County residents are food insecure, and they live in every part of our county. That means there is a 100% chance that someone who is hungry is your neighbor. The problem is even more acute in places like our Capital City where 27% of Trenton residents – and 37% of Trenton children – are living below the poverty line.

The face of hunger reflects the full range of diversity in our County. It’s children in our classrooms, unable to concentrate due to an empty stomach. It’s hardworking parents juggling bills and groceries, forced to make agonizing choices between nutrition and other necessities. It’s far too many senior citizens quietly battling hunger while living on a fixed income. These faces are more than just statistics. They are our neighbors, our family members, and our future.

The recent growth in food insecurity in Mercer County is unprecedented. Our organizations have been combatting food insecurity in Mercer County for decades, and we have never seen as many people seeking food assistance as we have in recent months. It’s traditional to focus concern on hunger at this time of year, but this is a continuing challenge that will be with us long after the holidays are over. Food insecurity like the chronic health conditions it can cause, has become chronic.

Our organizations are at the forefront of this crisis, attempting to meet the increasing need with dignity and compassion. Through our experience, we know what works. Our organizations offer nourishment, both through hot meals and food assistance. We provide pathways to self-sufficiency through education, housing, and workforce development. We measure our success not by the number of meals we serve or the amount of food assistance we provide, but by the number of people who no longer need our services.

New Jersey has taken important steps to support those facing hunger, including increasing benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), expanding food assistance programs, and creating the Office of the Food Security Advocate. We are grateful for this leadership by the State to address food insecurity.

The surging demand across Mercer County is outpacing these resources, highlighting the need for a comprehensive, community-driven approach. Our organizations have committed to work collaboratively to empower our communities and advance equity to reduce food insecurity throughout Mercer County. Only by developing a shared strategy and working in alignment can we achieve this ambitious goal. We hope to enlist support from corporate partners, foundations, and the broader community to invest in these innovative efforts.

The time to act is now. Mercer County is at a crossroads, and our response will define the future and the collective values of our community. The fight against food insecurity is not insurmountable but requires our unwavering commitment and concerted efforts.

That is why our organizations have pledged to work together to address this critical issue.  By standing together, advocating for change, and extending a hand to those in need, we can create a brighter, more nourished tomorrow for all.


Joyce E. Campbell, CEO of Trenton Area Soup Kitchen

Bernie Flynn, CEO of Mercer Street Friends

David Fox, Executive Director of Arm in Arm

Michelle Napell, Executive Director of Jewish Family & Children’s Services

Sarah Steward, CEO of HomeFront

Barrett Young, CEO of Rescue Mission of Trenton

Passover Greetings, Nourishing the Soul

This past Monday, JFCS was fortunate to co-host* a Seder for seniors, including the local Holocaust Survivors we support. It was a beautiful event and the first time in several years we’ve been able to hold a Passover Seder in person for this group.
A few days prior, I was telling a friend about the event. She asked if she could attend as a volunteer, in her words “to feed her soul.” She was of course welcome – it is after all the Passover theme to “let all who are hungry, come and eat,” even if that nourishment is for the soul as much as the body.
This exchange had me reflecting on how fortunate I am to work in an environment that feeds my soul each and every day by seeing the staff at JFCS serve our community with compassion. We are serving thousands of individuals across the community, but it is the small, individual moments that stick with you…
Learning our staff member packed a few extra meals for a Kosher Meals on Wheels recipient who missed a delivery due to illness, wanting to ensure he had more than enough as he recovered.
Hearing a client leaving a counseling session in better spirits than when they arrived.
Seeing the relief on a senior client’s face after connecting with a care manager with new reassurance that they are not along in making big decisions.
Receiving a card of thanks, handmade by the children of a food pantry client, sharing their gratitude for our service keeping food on their family table.
I hope your holiday is filled with small moments of joy. May your soul be fed as you gather at your Seder table this Passover.
Chag Sameach,
Michelle Napell
Executive Director
*Seder was co-hosted with Golden Age Club of JCC Princeton Mercer Bucks and Abrams Camp. Event partially funded by the Jewish Federation Princeton Mercer Bucks. Our thanks to Adath Israel Congregation for use of their space to hold event.

2022 JFCS Annual Meeting, What’s Next for JFCS

Last night, JFCS was thrilled to host our 85th Annual Meeting, open to the community. We thank those who joined us in person to reconnect with each other and the agency, while enjoying the lovely grounds of our host, the JCC Princeton Mercer Bucks & Abrams Camp.

As we shared at the meeting, JFCS services are more critical than ever:

Our Neighbors are Hungry… The annual inflation rate is at the highest it’s been in 40 years. The rising costs of basic necessities, including food, are impacting vulnerable families the hardest.

Our Seniors need Help… Home care is becoming increasingly difficult to secure due to rising costs and increasing need amongst an aging population still reeling from the isolation and impact of the pandemic.

Mental Health is in Crisis… The world is a stressful place and demand for mental health services remains high, especially amongst youth.

As JFCS works tirelessly to address these immediate needs in our community, we also see our costs rising…

The average price of pantry staples has risen by 12%, making it even more expensive to keep our shelves stocked while seeing higher demand. Similarly, the impact of rising costs across all facets of day-to-day operations means we’re striving to serve more people on limited resources.

We share these realities not to overwhelm you, but because we know you, our dedicated supporters, always want to know “What can I do? How can I help?”


MAKE A DONATION TODAY– your gifts help us keep moving forward, together, and serving our community with Help, Hope & Healing.

GIVE THE GIFT OF YOUR TIME– volunteer, organize a food drive, learn how to become involved.

Thank you for being a part of the JFCS family.


Gemilut Chasadim Award Winners:
Jody & Michael Zelin

Tzedakah Award Winner:
Talia Black

Kehillah Award Winner:
Chesed Squad of the Yavneh Community & OU-JLIC at Princeton

Gil Gordon Leadership and Volunteerism Award:
Holli Elias


8th Grade Mensch-in-Training:
Phoebe Dickler

12th Grade Mensch Award Winners:
Joshua Leeds


5 Year Anniversary
Eden Aaronson and Arlene Munoz, LSW

10 Year Anniversary
Val Wilson

15 Year Anniversary
Beth Englezos and Beth Hammer, LCSW

Janice Baer, LCSW

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, We’re Together for Mental Health 

Each year, May is designated as Mental Health Awareness Month to shine a light on the importance of mental health care – something we have all recognized over the past two difficult years. This year’s theme is “Together for Mental Health.” 

What does it mean to be together for mental health? 

At JFCS, we are united in the belief that mental health care has a place in all programs and services; and, with counseling being one of our core programs, our agency has a responsibility to promote mental healthcare to the community, provide resources, and join in the push to end the stigma surrounding mental healthcare and mental illness. 

In February, we shared a video that highlighted our specific mental health services – the counseling department as well as support groups. Yet we are tuned into the emotional and psychological needs of all we serve, from the families using our food pantry, to the seniors receiving geriatric care management, to the youth participating in our programs. 

Counseling Department

Is it helpful to have internal resources to refer your client, for more well-rounded mental health support?

Having internal access to agency resources to refer to clients, such as the food pantry, is an invaluable resource to offer to clients due to food insecurity rates that have significantly increased for many families due to the pandemic. Clients have provided great feedback and a sense of gratitude for having the ability to access nutritious foods in a dignified manner that normalizes the community’s need for the use of an agency food pantry.

Furthermore, being a part of agency that offers group workshops and marital counseling allows clients to gain access to these services without having to contact an outside agency and having to experience long waitlists elsewhere. Having accessibility for the aforementioned agency resources, allows me to meet client needs in an effortless manner and reduced time spent on case management services. 

~Arlene Munoz, LSW Bilingual Social Worker

It is helpful because once the client has built trust and rapport with their social worker, they will be comfortable utilizing another reputable JFCS service. Having the ability to access identified resources within the Agency removes barriers when coordinating services. 

~Shirley Bellardo, LCSW, LCADC Director of Clinical Services


How important is mental health sensitivity in your program? 

Each client reacts to situations in their own unique way. Our social workers have the required sensitivity and understanding to support a client with diverse interventions that best suit their needs.

~Shirley Bellardo, LCSW, LCADC Director of Clinical Services

Food Programs

How does mental health play a role in your program?

We know that food insecurity = stress and anxiety. Imagine not having enough food for you or your family? The JFCS Mobile Food Pantry truck and our onsite pantry offers a bit of mental health support by providing much needed nourishment – for the body and the soul.

~Beth Englezos, Manager of Hunger Prevention

Senior Services

How important is mental health sensitivity in your program?

Being aware of stressors and validating feelings is critical. Clients need to feel “heard” and not be embarrassed or judged when expressing feelings or describing circumstances that are challenging.

~Beth Hammer, LCSW Geriatric Care Manager

Is it helpful to have internal resources to refer your client, for more well-rounded mental health support?

It is essential to have both internal and external referral sources to give to clients. Knowing there are various agency and community resources available can ensure that individuals receive the appropriate assistance they may require.

~Beverly Mishkin, LCSW Director of Senior Services

Teen Programs

How does mental health play a role in your program?

Gesher LeKesher benefits the Mental Health of our Madrichim in a number of ways. We introduce many useful resources including JFCS and the Crisis Text Line if they or someone they know is struggling with Mental Health. Our teen leaders also lead a unit to the Talmidim on the topic of selfcare. Program participants also roleplay and discuss red flag mental health behaviors and ways to respond when a person you know is struggling with mental health.

~Celeste Albert, LCSW Coordinator of Teen Programs


What role does mental health sensitivity play in your program?

In order to be most effective, agency volunteers need to communicate with clients with an awareness and understanding that the client may be suffering from mental or emotional issues.  

How does your program benefit clients’ mental health?

From delivering food to making check-in phone calls, every service that JFCS volunteers offer serves to improve the mental health of the client. They are also trained to note any changes or issues that may be of concern and immediately report back to the appropriate JFCS team member.

How does your program benefit volunteers’ mental health?

Research has repeatedly shown tremendous benefits to volunteers who spend time helping others. Time after time, JFCS volunteers arrive with positive energy and a willingness to do whatever is needed. Helping others surely proves to help oneself.

~Eden Aaronson, Coordinator of Volunteers & Community Programs

What can you do personally to rally behind the call for “Together for Mental Health”? 

Visit the NAMI Mental Health Awareness Month Resource page to learn more. Help advocate for a better mental health care system, share your story to help inspire others and defeat the stigma around mental health care and mental illness, and learn more about mental health using their education resources. 

Passover Greetings, Celebrating a Festival of Freedom

A Festival of Freedom,

Free from Burdens We Have Carried

Passover is one of the most important observances in the Jewish community as we gather to tell the story of our ancestors’ exodus to freedom.

In a simple form, Passover is a festival of freedom.

This year our celebrations feel liberated, as many of us will have the chance to gather with a full crowd of family and friends for Seder, something that has not been possible in two years. The world does not look the same as it did when we last gathered in this way for Pesach, yet there is a freedom to what we can do. The pandemic may not be fully behind us, but because of our communal dedication to each other – by getting vaccinated, wearing a mask and social distancing when appropriate – we can now enjoy a new level of freedom; free from the burdens of worry, of isolation, and distance which we have carried since early 2020.

As the JFCS family prepares for upcoming celebrations, we reflect on how our services to the community also represents a path to freedom…

We provide seniors the autonomy and support to age how and where they choose.

We provide those fighting mental and emotional turmoil an outlet to unburden themselves of these internal stressors.

We provide families who are struggling financially the freedom found in nourishment and knowing they can put money towards other necessities, without worrying about filling their table.

May your Pesach be free of worries and brightened by togetherness with those you hold dear.

Chag Sameach,

Michelle Napell, Executive Director

JFCS: Moving Forward into 2022 with Help, Hope and Healing

The end of year is always a time to reflect and set goals for the year ahead. JFCS is sharing inspiring stories of how our programs have helped the individuals, families and community we serve move forward after another challenging year for all.

Valerie’s Journey of Healing…

Valerie reached out to JFCS after recognizing the severity of the anxiety and depression she was experiencing. After making the commitment to counseling and putting new skills into action, Valerie felt empowered to address the root of her most severe symptoms – low self-esteem caused by lack of boundaries in challenging relationships. By tackling the causes of her anxiety and depression, Valerie soon felt confident to move forward from therapy.

“My counselor was exceptional and did an excellent job listening without judgment and providing professional support. I am extremely grateful for this experience and am looking forward to moving past my anxiety.”

Helping Arthur and Ruth Move Forward with Confidence…

The JFCS senior service team received a call from Arthur, who lives out of state, and was concerned about his 90 year-old mother who lives alone in the Princeton community. While the son was in town, one of our geriatric care managers scheduled an appointment to meet with both Arthur and his mother, Ruth. The care manager did a thorough assessment including home safety, social supports, meal shopping/preparation and transportation options. A plan of care was developed to address these issues. Arthur left for home feeling like a “weight had been lifted from his shoulders.”

He knew he was no longer alone to deal with the challenges that lie ahead. JFCS receives many calls like this and our expert team of geriatric care managers is available to provide guidance and support to those in similar situations.

Melinda Finds Hope at the Pantry…

Melinda is a grandmother who serves as the primary guardian to both grandsons. She lives on a fixed income and is the full-time caregiver to both children, one of whom has significant physical special needs, requiring in-home therapy and care. It is difficult for Melinda to get out of the house, but thankfully, she is in counseling with one of our JFCS therapists who referred her to the pantry team. Our pantry team was able to identify one of our local mobile food pantry stops where Melinda can easily and conveniently pick up groceries. Melinda was also able to receive gift cards through the LIGHTS program so she could purchase holiday gifts for her grandsons, something out of reach without this support.

“With a resource coming right to my neighborhood, it is a huge relief. I face serious financial challenges as the sole caregiver for my grandsons, and I am so appreciative of any help. Even the smallest gesture makes a big difference in our lives.”

Stories like those of Valerie, Arthur, Ruth and Melinda are just some examples of the impact we have made, together, over the past year. You can read further about how JFCS has served the community this year in our latest Annual Report.

We thank all of those who have supported us, especially in these ongoing, challenging times. We hope you can once again trust JFCS to care for those in need with an end of year gift. Help us move into the new year with help, hope & healing.

1st Annual JFCS Wheels for Meals a Success!

The 1st Annual JFCS Wheels for Meals welcomed over 250 cyclists on a foggy autumn morning to Mercer County Community College. To date, the event has raised over $93,000 in support of JFCS food programs.

“We were astounded at the turnout for our inaugural event,” said Michelle Napell, Executive Director. “The enthusiasm of all the cyclists, from the experienced riders to the young cyclists representing local synagogues, it was a true demonstration of the power of community coming together for a cause.”

The support of 20 sponsors helped jump start the success of the event. Each cyclists who registered then had the opportunity to set up fundraising pages and have their networks donate towards a personal fundraising goal. Fundraisers could also form teams, which proved popular with local riding groups, synagogues, businesses, and even bar & bat mitzvah projects.

“We are thrilled to have set such an exciting precedent and only growing the event in future years,” adds Napell.

See the Wheels for Meals site for full cyclists info and to continue to contribute to the cause.

Event Sponsors:

Crook & Marker | Lisa & Mark Tobias

Bristol Myers Squibb | Susan & Michael Falcon | Firmenich Charitable Foundation | Lennar | Stark & Stark
Elaine & Barry Sussman | Vending Trucks Inc
David Adams | Bank of Princeton | Bob’s Discount Furniture | The Gershen Group LLC | Patty & Adolf Herst 
NJM Insurance GroupOrland’s Ewing Memorial Chapel | PJ’s Pancake House | Rick Pollock & Eric Risberg
Clive & Teresa Samuels Pat & Ray Schlaefer | Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton |   Szaferman Lakind
Taft Communications

Event Partners: 

Jay’s Cycles Princeton | NJ Sings | Wegmans | Witherspoon Media Group

Enjoy select photos from our event and view all in our Facebook Photo Album.

Individual Actions, Community Impact: A Message for the High Holidays

The high holidays are a time when we come together as a Jewish community in celebration and solemn observance; yet, when you consider the holidays, our observance is in fact very much focused on individual reflection, atonement, and giving. This time of year which holds great significance to our collective all begins with our individual choices and acts.

Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we reflect on our individual actions – what could I have done differently – and review our choices – what am I proud of this year – in an attempt to honestly evaluate ourselves. We evaluate, we redeem, we give, and we set our own path for the year ahead and, while doing so, we create a more connected, supportive, compassionate community.

This theme felt incredibly poignant given all we have endured and continue to face because of the pandemic.

It has taken each of us making individual choices – helping a neighbor, giving a donation, wearing a mask, getting vaccinated – to bring our community to a better place, a more hopeful place, this fall compared to last fall.

Over the past year, JFCS has witnessed first-hand how the generous actions of one individual can have far reaching effects, like the mother-daughter efforts of Sujaya and Anushka Majumdar who hand-sewed masks to donate to JFCS and other local organizations to distribute to clients in need, and Samantha Burnside, a local teen who rallied family and friends to raise almost $1,000 for the JFCS food pantries. This July, the entire world witnessed how the voice of an individual, Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, could raise awareness, and inspire others to prioritize their own mental health.

One person’s action can make all the difference to a neighbor, a community, a country, a world.

While we have come so far since last year, there are still many who need our help on the long road to healing. There are the seniors working through the impact of a year of isolation, there are the individuals struggling with mental and emotional turmoil, and there are families continuing to live in a state of financial uncertainty, unsure if they can afford their next meal.
We turn to you, to your power as an individual to act. In honor of the high holidays, we ask that you consider how you can make a small choice that can benefit the community.

A donation now means that when you reflect next year, you already know you have made a difference, an action to be proud of.

Michelle Napell, Executive Director
Jill Jaclin, Board President

September is Hunger Action Month! How Can You Help?

In 2008, Feeding America established Hunger Action Month, recognized during the month of September. As we continue to see the long-term impact of the pandemic, we know those who were already in vulnerable financial positions have been pushed even further.

In Mercer County, 1 in 10 individuals is estimated to be food insecure.

This September, how can you help during Hunger Action Month?

Taking Small Steps for a Big Impact

    • On your next trip to the grocery store, pick up a few extra items to donate to your local food pantry. The JFCS food pantry accepts Kosher food items and is always in need of healthy breakfast foods: hot & cold cereal, oatmeal, pancake/waffle mixes
    • Make a monetary donation to a local food pantry or food bank. If you want to support the JFCS food pantry and food distribution programs, make a gift on our donation page and include a Note: Hunger Action Month.
    • Plant-a-Row – harvest season is here! If you maintain a personal garden, consider donating excess produce to the JFCS pantry. All summer long our food pantry has benefited from donations from personal and community gardens that have allowed us to offer a variety of fresh produce to our clients. Want to know more about what to plant and how to donate? Connect with pantry coordinator Taryn Krietzman, RDN at
    • JFCS is the Stop & Shop Pennington Bloomin’ 4 Good Partner for September! All month long, for every Bloomin’ for Good bouquet (designated with red sticker) sold, the JFCS pantry receives $1. Support our pantry while spreading joy.

Group Efforts

    • Volunteer! You and your family or a small group can help pack bags at the JFCS pantry or provide support at a mobile pantry distribution. Connect with our volunteer coordinator, Eden Aaronson at to learn more.
    • Organize a food drive! Whether you’re back to the office, back to school, or still connecting virtually, you can organize a food drive in your community. Learn about how to organize a drive for JFCS by connecting with Eden Aaronson at

Go the Extra *MILE*

    • Sign up to ride in the 1st Annual JFCS Wheels for Meals bike ride fundraiser on Sunday, October 3! This new fundraiser supports all JFCS food programs – the on-site and mobile food pantries and senior nutrition programs. This event is perfect for serious and not-so-serious riders with multiple route options. Learn more and register to ride at!

Our Year in Review: Celebrating Community & Stories of Impact

JFCS was thrilled to host an almost “normal” Annual Meeting on June 1, welcoming staff, Board and community award winners and their families to an outdoor celebration held at JCC Abrams Camp.

We took the opportunity to recognize staff anniversaries, celebrate the winners of the Rose & Louis H. Linowitz Mensch Awards, and present our annual awards to community partners. We also reflected on the past year, sharing stories of impact across our programs, and what stories are coming in the next year.

View a short recap of the full event below:

2021 Rose & Louis H. Linowitz Mensch Awards

8th Grade Mensch-in-Training:

Zachary Miller

12th Grade Mensch Award Winners:

Jeremy Brandspiegel

Yoni Livstone

Mark Sheffield

2021 JFCS Community Award Winners

Tzedakah Award Winner:

Ilana Scheer

Kehillah Award Winner:

The Big Thinkers Group

Gemilut Chasadim Award Winner:

Hayley Aaronson