Thanksgiving dinner is a culinary feast as families gather together to share delicious food, let the children have fun at the kid’s table and celebrate another year of abundance.
But for one in eight youngsters in Camden, Gloucester, Burlington and Salem counties, there is no guarantee of a meal with all the fixings.
Being hungry, to them, is a fact of everyday life.
“One in 11 people are food insecure in South Jersey, and one in eight children. Those aren’t acceptable numbers,” said Kori Rife, senior manager of Marketing & Communications for the Food Bank of South Jersey.
To alleviate the pangs of hunger the huge complex at 1501 John Tipton Blvd. in Pennsauken distributes nutritious food to 100,000 families a month through its pantry partners in the four counties, Rife said.
And to make Thanksgiving dinner brighter, they are preparing to send out 22,000 turkeys with all the fixings, she said, including items collected in the parking lot during the Holiday Food Drive on Saturday, Nov. 19. Also, they will receive donations from the Scouting for Hunger program on the same day.
“We have more than 3,000 volunteers who donate their time and energy. They help with Hope Mobile and Pop up Pantries throughout the year, and distribute food to our 200 pantry partners,” said Rife, adding that the volunteers, the staff and the donors are “essential” to meeting the needs of struggling families.
“The Food Bank of South Jersey was started in 1985 by a group of 13 volunteers in Camden City,” Rife said.
When the site moved to the giant Pennsauken facility in 2002 there were 35 to 40 staff members. Now there are 90 “amazing and dedicated” staff members, including certified dietetic technicians who go out to schools and community centers to teach children and adults how to cook nutritious meals.
Getting food items ready in the Health and Wellness kitchen at the facility were Stacey Austin, Ingrid Benco and Jessica Allen. The group was preparing a presentation at Forest Hill elementary school in Camden.
“We teach people about nutrition. We give them recipes. They need to know how to cook a good meal. It can really make a difference,” Austin said.
At the large sorting center, volunteer Donna Fitzgerald and staff member Pete Barton were busily going through boxes of food donations.
“We separate the food into categories, check expiration dates and box everything up for distribution,” Barton said.
Normally, the Food Bank accepts non-perishable, shelf stable food items. But that has changed. Using pandemic funds from the federal government, the facility has added a gigantic refrigerator and freezer warehouse, Rife said.
The holiday turkeys already received from corporate partners are stored in the freezer, and fresh produce such as onions, tomatoes, fruits and vegetables are in the refrigerator, she said.
The organization’s three pillars are food, nutrition and sustainability, as the organization is concerned about the health and wellness of the families and providing solutions.
“We help people apply for SNAP (formally food stamps) and work with community partners to help them have access to affordable housing and health care,” said Rife, a 2002 graduate of Delran High School.
“Food security has always been an interest of mine. Working here is real hands-on and we know we are helping our neighbors in South Jersey,” said Rife, adding that the need is great.
“At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, we were serving about 96,000 neighbors a month. In 2021, we saw some relief and our neighbors served each month was around 60,000. Since March of this year, due to inflation and rising food prices, we’ve served more than 100,000 neighbors each month,” she said.
“The surge of inflation is forcing our neighbors to make no-win decisions: ‘Do I pay for gas to get to work, or do I buy groceries? Do I pay the electric bill, or do I put food on our table?’ Our neighbors who are receiving our assistance have told us that we are helping to bring them peace of mind and stability during this time of economic turmoil,” Rife said.
Other things in-need neighbors have said include:
“I can’t afford my insulin and to buy groceries.”
“Everyday bills get in the way. If it wasn’t for the pantry, I wouldn’t be eating.”
“By the end of the month, there is nothing left.”
“I was embarrassed to come to the food bank at first – but I did it for my children.”
“Everybody needs a little help right now.”
And, the Food Bank of South Jersey is doing its best to provide that help.
“We encourage anyone in need of food to visit foodbanksj.org/zip-code-locator. This is the easiest way to find food near them. Though we are in constant contact with our 200 pantry partners, we are not always able to keep up with each changing schedule. However, when hours change, we try to note on the website. The best way for our neighbors to be sure, though, is to call the number listed for the pantry nearest them,” Rife said.
She appreciates all the food donations from individuals, community organizations and local businesses, and said that monetary donations also help.
“If readers would like to make a monetary donation, they can visit our website, foodbanksj.org and click that big red donate button in the upper right-hand corner, or visit donate.foodbanksj.org. Because of our purchasing power, we can stretch every dollar we receive in donations to purchase more food. With every dollar, we can purchase three meals,” Rife said.
The Food Bank of South Jersey provides hope for many struggling families in South Jersey. Thanks to the efforts of the staff, volunteers and donors, Thanksgiving dinner will be a feast for many of them.