Fresh Food and Supplies For Families in Need Are Provided By Princeton Mobile Food Pantry
HELPING HANDS: “It’s very important to provide fresh seasonal food to families who need it. This is our mission. Our primary focus is for families with children in Princeton Public Schools.” Shown are the team members who guide and operate the Princeton Mobile Food Pantry. From left are Wendy Wilton, Debbie Bronfeld, Liliana Morenilla, Dafna Kendal, Shilpa Pai, Sharon Litvinsky, Mandy Arshan, Amy Lansky, and Jennifer Lea Cohan. Missing from the photo is Jackie Swain.
By Jean Stratton
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, that’s the only thing that ever does.”
How to translate that conviction into action? Some people see a need and don’t know what to do about it. Some are unaware of the need. Others see the need and find ways to address it.
The last statement is the story of the Princeton Mobile Food Pantry (PMFP) and the remarkable team that created it, and continues to make it happen.
In 2007, Princeton resident and volunteer Liliana Morenilla became aware of students who did not have enough to eat.
“I was volunteering at Johnson Park Elementary School translating for Spanish-speaking parents,” she explains. “There was constant mention of food insecurity in their homes. One day, I had to separate two little ones who were fighting for a granola bar. What started the fight was that the kids never had snacks from home, and were hungry.”
As she became aware of this need, Morenilla, who is now community outreach coordinator for the Princeton Public School System, founded the Princeton Mobile Food Pantry in 2010. To address the problem initially, she created a “mobile pantry” of healthy snacks in the trunk of her car. In 2017, a partnership with Mercer Street Friends Food Bank was established, and offered a weekly pick-up for more than 300 people at the Henry Pannell Learning Center.
With the advent of COVID-19 in 2020, the organization adopted a new name, Princeton Mobile Food Pantry, and began bi-weekly deliveries of fresh seasonal groceries. In 2021, PMFP received 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, and its operation grew significantly.
As PMFP president Amy Lansky points out, “We have seen our list of neighbors grow from 100 families in 2021 to 165 families in January 2022 to 250 families in May of 2023. This is due to the continued need and our reputation of providing quality food and our ability to bring it directly to families’ homes — many of whom do not have transportation.”
The organization has evolved to include nine board members (all of whom are women and all volunteers) and also more than 50 volunteers who pack and deliver the food, and maintain the PMFP free store at its Princeton Shopping Center location (formerly the site of the Claridge Liquor Store).
The 250 families assisted by PMFP include more than 1250 infants, schoolchildren, parents, and seniors. According to the organization’s statistics, seven
percent of the Princeton population experiences “food insecurity.” The families PMFP supports are connected to the Princeton public schools, and with inflation and increasing food costs it is likely that this number will only increase.
Each family served by PMFP receives two bags of fresh food every other Wednesday. One bag contains protein, such as meat, chicken, eggs, and milk. The other: fresh fruit and vegetables.
“Our deliveries are typically for families of three to five members, and we believe there is enough to last for a couple of days and have leftovers,” reports Morenilla. “Also, we have had a big increase in the number of seniors, and we will be adjusting our bags for them.”
In addition to the food delivery, donations of non-perishable food items and supplies such as clothing, toys, children’s sports equipment, books, car seats, strollers, diapers, and hygiene products can be brought to the shopping center location every third Saturday. It is best to check ahead regarding hours and need for specific items.
Free of Charge
In order to operate this entirely volunteer and free program, PMFP relies on donations from sponsors, individuals, organizations, and grants, including one recently from the Princeton Area Community Foundation. Help is also received from merchants, stores, and organizations that provide provisions either free of charge or at significantly discounted prices. Among those are McCaffrey’s Food Markets, Terhune Orchards, Bagel Nook, Orchard Farm Organics, Mercer Street Friends, Pantry at Princeton Alliance Church, Bahama Breeze Restaurant, I Support the Girls, and Princeton Period.
“McCaffrey’s provides a generous discount, as well as coordination of ordering and delivering food directly to our Princeton Shopping Center location,” says Lansky. “In addition, we rely on multiple partnerships for extra items that we include in our bags. These may also come from drives that a local school or organization has held for us. For example, a group of Hun School students held a hygiene product drive, and then volunteered to come bag the items.”
Other items can be donated, she adds, “Terhune Orchards will donate produce and pies or any additional inventory that may be available.”
“Our most unique partnership was a couple who had a very large home garden,” continues Lansky. “They wanted to expand their garden and grow fresh produce directly for our pantry. It was a wonderful connection. They provided us with lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, and other produce for the past two spring/summer deliveries. Sadly, they recently relocated due to a job change, and we feel the loss of that partnership.”
Health and Well-Being
As founder, Morenilla is the community liaison for the Princeton families in need and PMFP. She helps families to enroll, continues to check with them regularly regarding food preferences and their general health and well-being.
In addition, she is engaged with fundraising (as are all PMFP team members), and contacts McCaffrey’s weekly to see what is available and best for the families’ needs.
The PMFP support system of volunteers is crucial to the operation, and includes people of all ages, students, retirees, etc. Of course, the organization always welcomes new volunteers to help in all ways.
Princeton resident Beth Ogilvie-Freda has been volunteering for several months, and has become more aware of the families in need. As she says, “I deliver food bags after other volunteers sort and pack them. I now have much more of an understanding of the food insecurity we have in our community and the need for organizations like this with such dedicated volunteers.”
Funding is, of course, essential, and those who want to donate financially can reach out via the PMFP website. In addition, there are sponsorship programs available as well as the opportunities for individuals.
Adds Lansky, “We welcome partnerships with the various organizations in town. We are always seeking volunteers, funding and support. And families who require assistance can reach out via our website.”
The PMFP team is proud of what they have accomplished, and look forward to continuing their efforts to help others. Over the years, they have forged strong bonds of trust and understanding with the families they support.
In addition, the board and volunteers have formed enduring relationships with each other. As Liliana Morenilla says, “The ambiance we breathe is pure joy! The team and volunteers are happy to help, and we are so proud of what we do and the support we provide. There is mutual respect for each other and for the families we serve.”
And what does she look forward to as time passes? “A day our families don’t need us because food is not an issue for them anymore.”