Hank Roberti can’t keep count of how many people he’s hugged.
“You know, when you could hug,” he said.
Roberti is one of about 10 volunteers for the food pantry at the St. Vincent de Paul Society for the Poor in Tabernacle, which feeds more than 100 local families in need each month.
Each week, volunteers gather at the Holy Eucharist Church on Medford Lakes Road that, on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, looks more like an assembly line. Volunteers load groceries into the building, package them in brown paper bags and start bringing them out to the cars of families facing food insecurity.
“We’ll take care of you,” Roberti said, remembering an interaction he had with a first-time client.
“I remember his eyes. I know how hard it was for him to ask,” Roberti recalled. “I saw embarrassment. I saw despair and hunger.”
For about 20 years, the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Tabernacle has provided financial assistance to low-income families, helping them with bills and providing guidance. Ten years ago, volunteers at the society opened the pantry.
“The biggest thing was the need in the area,” noted Joanne O’Brien, a long-time volunteer whom the others call ‘The Boss.’ “All of a sudden, it seemed it wasn’t enough just helping people financially; they seemed like they really needed to get food on a monthly basis.”
In Burlington County, nearly 8 percent of residents face some kind of food insecurity, meaning limited or uncertain access to food, according to Feeding America, a national hunger relief organization.
Neil DeStefano is another volunteer at the food pantry. Before retiring, he worked in the agriculture sector.
“After spending all those years in agriculture, I’m keenly aware of food shortages,” he said. “The issue, from my perspective, isn’t food shortage. We make and grow plenty of crops and food. The issue is distribution.”
Each month, families can pick up three bags of groceries at the pantry that are filled with food items like pasta and sauce, meat, bread and other basics.
During holiday months, the pantry provides additional meal kits. Volunteers are currently preparing to distribute turkeys, stuffing, mashed potatoes and other goods for Thanksgiving.
The pantry receives food and financial donations from parishioners at Holy Eucharist, Waller’s Deli, Nixon’s Deli, Sprouts and other Tabernacle businesses.
“We’re very fortunate with parishioners,” O’Brien explained. “If they have gardens, they bring their stuff and drop it off here. So people do get fresh produce and stuff like that. It’s not just all canned goods.”
Sometimes the pantry receives damaged or nearly expired items.These and other donations, like diapers, toys and pet supplies, go to a take-what-you-wish “shop” run by volunteer Shari Bonn. This week, families could pick up hot chocolate, soda, organic food and other products in addition to their three bags of groceries.
When donations expire, they’re given to local farmers or other people who could use them.
“Nothing here goes to waste,” Roberti said. “Someone can use that somewhere.”
During COVID-19, the pantry is doing no-contact pickups, which can be made by appointment by calling the hotline at (609) 268-0005. Families or individuals in need who live in Chatsworth, Shamong, Tabernacle, Southampton and Vincentown are eligible to receive food from the pantry.