January 1, 2020

Jewish Family and Children’s Service Takes its Food Pantry On the Road

By Anne Levin

When the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County (JFCS) first held a pop-up food pantry at Better Beginnings, a preschool in Hightstown, they were told to expect about 35 families to show up. But three days before the event, that estimate was changed.

“They called and said that 74 families had signed up,” said Michelle Napell, executive director of JFCS. “A lot of people don’t realize that this is a crisis. They feel, ‘We live in New Jersey. We live in Mercer County. And people aren’t hungry here.’ Which couldn’t be further from the truth.”

According to the JFCS, nearly 40,000 people in Mercer County lack consistent access to enough food to lead healthy, active lives, and often don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Responding to the statistics, the organization is taking its existing, brick-and-mortar “healthy choice pantry” on the road. Starting at the end of this month, the pantry offering fresh and frozen produce, meats, dairy products, and standard shelf staples will be traveling to distribution stops to be announced.

“We’ve been speaking to a lot of our community partners to establish where we’ll start the initial voyages,” said Napell. “We’re having a soft launch, which we can’t announce yet. But we do know that Better Beginnings is our first stop.”

On January 30 from 4-7 p.m., JFCS will reveal the mobile pantry’s route at a celebration to be held at 707 Alexander Road, site of its headquarters and the existing food pantry. A long list of private, corporate, and community sponsors have made the mobile idea a reality. Napell secured $100,000 before beginning serious fundraising. “We wanted to make sure we could buy the truck and supply it with the food,” she said.

While the food pantry is kosher, it is not limited to those who only eat kosher food. “The reason we have a kosher food pantry is so that if there is one person who needs it to be kosher, it’s available,” said Napell. “But it is absolutely for anyone who needs it.”

The project was first announced last June. While Napell and colleagues have been working since then to secure funding and connect with potential distribution sites, the existing pantry has grown to meet increasing demand in the region. But it has become obvious that there is a need beyond the local area.

“We know that significant obstacles exist within our community, which present individuals and families facing hunger from accessing the available resources,” Napell said in a press release. “In addition to financial challenges, public transportation is limited, and some individuals, especially seniors, may have mobility issues.

“Even a single bag of groceries allows a single mother struggling to put food on the table for her three children, to pay an extra bill. For a senior, it provides the peace of mind of not having to maneuver through a grocery store with a walker and cart. For a couple with no transportation trying to make the most of a modest budget but limited to shopping at the local convenience store, that bag of healthy, fresh groceries is life-changing.”

Napell emphasizes that the people being served by the mobile food pantry are the working poor. “This is not people who don’t work. It’s working people who just can’t make ends meet,” she said. “We have met teachers, even our mail carrier, who need this service. And we are here to help them.”

For more information, visit www.jfcsonline.org.