October 7, 2008

Food Drive Comes at a ‘Dire’ Time


As far as the people running North Jersey's food pantries are concerned, the annual Action Against Hunger food drive couldn't be coming at a more crucial time.

"We are totally out of certain critical foods," said Patricia Espy, executive director of the Center for Food Action in Englewood, which operates seven pantries in Bergen County and one in Passaic County. "The situation is dire. We need the drive to be as successful as possible."

Conditions are even worse at CUMAC in Paterson, Passaic County's largest pantry, which was forced to close its doors for two days last month when it ran completely out of supplies. "We are open again, but we have very limited resources," said Laura Purdy, the agency's administrative director.

The food drive takes place from noon to 4 p.m. next Sunday. Area residents can make donations of cash or non-perishable food items at more than 100 locations across North Jersey, including Kings, Pathmark, ShopRite, A&P, Foodtown and Stop & Shop supermarkets.

This is the 17th year for the drive, which distributes food and money to more than 60 emergency food pantries in Bergen, Passaic, Essex and Morris counties. Last year's effort collected 111 tons of food and nearly $13,000, according to Susan Kurland, the food drive coordinator.

"This year we'd like to get over 100 tons and over $15,000 in cash," said Jennifer Borg, president of North Jersey Media Group Foundation, which sponsors the drive. The foundation is the charitable and community service arm of North Jersey Media, which publishes The Record.

"It's the single largest source of food that we have," Espy said. Last year CFA received about $200,000 worth of supplies from the drive, she added, accounting for about 10 percent of all its donations. "Usually we're still using that food in February."

CUMAC took in nearly 50,000 pounds of food from the 2007 drive, according to Debbie Fletcher, the group's office manager. "In past years we've looked to the food drive to get us through the winter months into the next year, because donations in the winter are usually slow."

But the pantry operators are worried that the food from this year's drive may be exhausted much quicker. The reason: a vast increase in the number of people they're serving and declining donations for the past several months, both caused by the weak economy.

"We're really nervous about what's coming in this year," Fletcher said. "We may not even make it to Thanksgiving at this rate."

"I've never seen it this bad at this time of year," added Espy. "September was one of our lowest months ever in terms of cash coming in. There's so much bad news, people probably felt nervous about giving to charity. We're pretty much out of funds for the year, except for what we have left from last year's food drive -- which we divided into 12 monthly allocations."

Those monthly amounts won't be enough to cover the cost of buying and transporting food, she said. The pantries also get support through ShopRite's Partners in Caring program. The supermarket company donates about $2 million annually into an account with the Community Food Bank of New Jersey in Hillside. Participating food pantries each get a share, and can buy food at discounted prices until they use up their funds.

Espy said CFA exhausted the amount in its Food Bank account for the third quarter of the year early in September. She expects to use up the money set aside for the last three months of the year some time in November.

What's driving the crisis is a huge jump in the number of clients. Through August, CUMAC saw a 30 percent increase. Into July, CFA was seeing 18 percent more people than it had over the first seven months of last year. But in August and September, Espy said, the increase jumped to more than 30 percent over 2007.

"They're people who have been low income but were squeaking by," Espy said. "Now they're facing higher food prices and energy costs. We're seeing people who have been laid off, but the bigger part is we're seeing people whose hours have been cut back. Where they could get by when they worked 30 or 35 hours a week, now they're only working 20 hours."

CFA also is seeing more elderly clients on fixed incomes.

"We saw a huge jump in the number of seniors in September," she noted. "People told us they were running short for all sorts of reasons. One said he was hit with a rent increase. Somebody else had lost their drug insurance coverage."

Espy added that she can't be sure at this point whether the sudden increase in demand from older people was a one-month anomaly or the beginning of a trend. "But if it's a trend, we're in big trouble," she said.


Fast facts

The 17th annual Action Against Hunger food drive is Oct. 12 from noon to 4 p.m. You can bring cash donations or non-perishable food items to any of more than 100 participating sites, including ShopRite, Kings, A&P, Foodtown, Pathmark and Stop & Shop supermarkets across North Jersey.

Tax-deductible donations may also be made online at www.ActionAgainstHunger.com, or mailed to North Jersey Media Group Foundation, c/o Legal Department, PO Box 75, Hackensack, NJ 07602- 9192. For more information visit the Web site, e-mail [email protected] or call 201-646-4029.

ShopRite, Kraft and the New York Giants are also sponsoring a special fund-raiser at 7 p.m. Monday in the Stadium Club at Giants Stadium to support Partners in Caring a program that funds local food banks. Tickets are available at the door or on the Giants Web site, giants.com.


E-mail: [email protected]

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