It’s Thursday at the Mercer Street Friends’ Food Bank facility in Ewing Township, and the 10,000-square-foot warehouse is bustling with activity. As is customary each week, local charities are loading their trucks with fresh produce, canned vegetables, and packaged foods to feed the hungry of Mercer County.
In one corner of the sprawling space, volunteers repack bulk bags of pasta into smaller, family-size packages. Another group nearby assembles boxes of Parmalat milk, plastic containers of fruit cups, and other foods for the “Send Hunger Packing” boxes that go home with children who get free breakfasts and lunches at school, but might not have access to adequate food over the weekends.
There is significant hunger in Mercer County. Most local residents are unaware of how widespread a problem exists. The statistics are sobering: More than 25,000 here are “food insecure,” meaning they lack consistent access to adequate food. A large proportion of them are children. The Food Bank, which will celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary with a festive fundraiser in the warehouse on October 5, moves about 50,000 pounds of food a week, to some 60 organizations including the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, Homefront, the Crisis Ministry of Princeton and Trenton, and the Princeton Deliverance Center.
Phyllis Stoolmacher, the Food Bank’s energetic director, knows the numbers by heart. She has been shepherding the program since its inception. “Our role is to garner resources and ensure that hungry people have a steady and reliable source of food,” she says, during a briskly paced tour through the warehouse. “There’s a lot of excess food out there. We secure it and redirect it to other non-profits – shelters, meal sites, day care centers. People just don’t realize the extent of hunger in Mercer County.”
The donations come from the food industry, retail stores, the USDA’s Emergency Food Assistance Program, the State Food Purchase Program, farmers, and community food drives, among other sources. And Ms. Stoolmacher is picky about what she accepts – no junk food. “We have high standards,” she says. “No soda, no candy, no Ramen noodles. About 50 percent of what we have is fruit and vegetables. It has to be nutritionally sound. We’re the second smallest food bank in the state, but we certainly have the highest standards.”
Ms. Stoolmacher likes to think of the Food Bank as not just a food distribution program, but a hunger prevention program. Through its member organizations, the Food Bank holds nutrition workshops and outreach to make healthy food more available to those in need. The federal program formerly known as food stamps is now called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), and the Food Bank initiated a SNAP Outreach in 2010. “People might not realize that they qualify for this, and we help them break down barriers,” Ms. Stoolmacher says. “I’m disturbed by the rhetoric of putting a negative view of food programs for the poor. This is not an entitlement program. It enables people to put food on their tables, and the money that is spent in the local community, in local supermarkets, is revenue.”
Middle class people who live in the suburbs are the fastest growing segment of those the organization serves. “Most people understand that hunger is a result of poverty,” Ms. Stoolmacher says. “But they assume that it is an inner city problem. That’s not true. Since the recession, it has spread to the suburbs. People have lost their jobs, and they are just not finding work. We’re seeing more food pantries opening in Hamilton Township than in the city of Trenton. We work with several groups in Princeton. There isn’t a community in Mercer County, or America, that doesn’t have hunger.”
A program of the Trenton-based, Quaker-affiliated Mercer Street Friends, the Food Bank was initially housed in the city’s Rescue Mission. The spacious warehouse in Ewing Township’s West Trenton section is outfitted with refrigeration and freezer areas. It is the logical spot for the gala party that will mark the organization’s twenty-fifth birthday. “We’re a Quaker-based organization, so we’re not going to do this at the Hilton,” Ms. Stoolmacher says. “We wanted to note the anniversary and use it as a way to raise funds and awareness. So what better place than our warehouse?”
Food, wine, music, and a silent auction are part of the festivities. Auction items range from a Michael Graves signed drawing to a week in France, with much in between. Tickets are $75.
“We’re celebrating and we’re thanking our volunteers, because we couldn’t function without them,” Ms. Stoolmacher says. “They do the physical work. They make things happen. And we really believe in engaging the community.”