As it celebrates 40 years of service in 2022, Human Needs Food Pantry sees more people coming through it’s doors than ever, a result of the pandemic and inflation combined. ACME has supported this nonprofit through its GIVE BACK WHERE IT COUNTS Reusable Bag Program.
Tell us about the Human Needs Food Pantry.
We’ve been in existence since 1982. The food pantry started in the basement of a Baptist church, serving about 20 of their congregants. From there it expanded, eventually becoming a private nonprofit. This year is our 40th anniversary year.
Basically, our mission is to provide food, clothing and other services to people in need. We serve all of Essex County (NJ) on a weekly basis, and then we get people from literally all over the state on a monthly basis. We’re the largest suburban pantry in Essex County. Like anywhere else, we have very affluent areas, but also areas with Section 8 housing. Poverty is everywhere. I don’t care what town you’re in, it’s every place. Food insecurity especially is a hidden problem because people are embarrassed to admit it. They’re hesitant to ask for help. It takes a lot for people to walk through the door of a food pantry and ask for assistance.
Since the first month of the pandemic, we’ve added 1,700 families we didn’t have before. This year to date (late August 2022), we’ve added more than 500 additional households.
And inflation is now making that worse. Because now, even the people that already receive assistance, for example, from the SNAP program, come out of a supermarket with a lot less because everything is so expensive. We’re seeing it in our own purchases.
Poverty is everywhere. I don’t care what town you’re in, it’s every place.
What services do you provide to the community?
We try to fill gaps for anybody that’s in need. We provide a wide range of items, from food and clothing to diapers and wipes for young moms, to personal products such as soap and shampoo. We provide nutritional supplements for cancer patients; for people that have dietary issues, we provide Ensure; for diabetics, we provide Glucerna; we provide PediaSure for children. And we provide pet food because we don’t want people feeding their pets at the expense of feeding themselves.
So, we try to fill any gap that we see. We do medical screenings twice a month; nurses come out from the local hospital, and they do screenings for blood pressure and sugar and things like that. I’ve had vaccine events at the pantry where I’ve brought people out from Mountainside Hospital, and they’ve done vaccinations for people.
Most recently I had a mobile doctor’s office come and do physicals for them. And we also do deliveries to homebound people. Every week we do about 250 deliveries to people that are elderly, handicapped or otherwise can’t get out for their own food.
We’re just trying to fill their needs. When they come, the line is down the block every day. And I spend the bulk of my time walking up and down the street, talking to them and we try to find out what are they struggling with and the things that we can help them with. The bigger problems are housing and employment and even there we try to provide referrals.
I know I’ve redone a whole host of their work resumes to try to improve their chances at getting employment. I tell them, go on LinkedIn and connect to me. And then, we try to help them out with job interview pointers. We provide clothing for job interviews and things like that. We’re just trying to try to help them any way we can.
Tell us a story that illustrates the good work you are doing.
There are so many stories we could give you, but one in particular stands out to me. I had a woman come in, who was just distraught. She and her husband were in the television industry, and they both lost their jobs at the same time. They went through their savings, and she was forced to come to the food pantry. When she came in, she just couldn’t control herself and she was sobbing for quite a while. But when she calmed down, she told me about the situation. I asked her if she had a resume, and the look on her face was priceless. What she didn’t know was that the nondescript building across the street from us is a television studio for the Food Network. I had become a bit friendly with one of the celebrity chefs there who came over and knocked on the window one night and wanted to know what we did. She was very gracious and gave us a donation.
So, I took this woman’s resume, and I contacted that chef and I gave it to her. She immediately adopted their family for the Christmas holiday. And then she worked on getting them both employment. And so, they both got jobs and they both didn’t need us anymore. I’d like nothing more than that to happen with everyone who comes here and to see us go out of business
What is your greatest achievement or contribution to the community?
The most generic one is that we’re keeping up with the demand; that in today’s economy, with everything that’s going on with supply chain shortages and inflation, the fact that we’re able to keep up with the hundreds and hundreds of people who come to us for help is our greatest achievement.
We try to keep it light here. These people are under a tremendous amount of stress. So, if you come to our food pantry, you’ll be surprised that you hear a lot of joking and laughing, and we try to keep it like that for them. When I register them to receive food, I always tell them, “You have a lot of stress in your life. This is not going to be stressful; we make the process as easy as possible.”
I always tell them, “You have a lot of stress in your life. This is not going to be stressful; we make the process as easy as possible.”
What do you want people to know about Human Needs Food Pantry?
I want people to know that we’re here! You’d be shocked how many people, even from the local area say that they never knew we were here, and we’ve been around for 40 years. We have a vibrant social media program, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. But when people are looking for food, the first thing they do is go to the library, get on the computer and Google “food pantries.” So, we make sure that we pop up in that feed.
How are you using the funds you’ve received from the ACME GIVE BACK WHERE IT COUNTS Reusable Bag Program?
It’s going directly to the purchase of food and supplies. Last year I spent close to $320,000 on groceries and produce. We do receive two allocations a month from the Community Food Bank, but with the numbers that we’re serving, we go through that very quickly. This year to date, we’re already past the number of what we spent year.
We try to provide meat, chicken and fish plus fresh fruit and vegetables, and obviously the nonperishables like pasta, rice and bread. Plus, we do special things for the different holidays, like hot dogs and hamburgers for Labor Day. At Thanksgiving last year, we gave out 1,300 turkeys so we really try to accommodate special events and do for them what I would like to do in my own home. That’s the way we try to run the place.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
We have a tremendous operation going out of a small building and the truth of it is, it’s completely driven by volunteers. We have upwards of 80 volunteers who handle everything from packing bags in the warehouse to handling our clothing. Our second floor is dedicated to clothing, and you would think you were in Macy’s the way it’s set up. Our volunteers go through our donations and sort them. They do presentations for Christmas and set up a holiday boutique
Then we have delivery drivers; all of our 250 deliveries a week are done by volunteers. The generosity of our volunteers, their giving of themselves, they drive the food pantry. I have the easy job!