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Hunger Leaves Union County Residents with Empty Feeling

More than 69,000 people — 23,000 of them children — don't have enough food. It's likely that someone close to you needs a helping hand.

Behind a doorway marked “storage,” hungry Scotch Plains and Fanwood residents choose from a modest collection of canned goods, pasta and a few perishable foods, all carefully arranged on tall, metal racks. Madeline Rutkowski, who serves as the Assistant to the Mayor and Township Mayor is obsessed with making the Scotch Plains Food Pantry an invaluable resource for anyone in need.

“Some of our clients have just lost their jobs or fallen ill," Rutkowski said. "For them, this is a temporary need. Some, however, some have been coming here for years. We have seen veterans, seniors, singles, and families; we service a varied group of people with different needs. That is why, unlike other pantries where you simply receive a pre-made box, our families can come and pick and choose what they need that week.”

As she carried several bags of food donated by a fifth-grade class from Park Middle School Tuesday afternoon, Rutkowski is appreciative that residents keep the Scotch Plains pantry's shelves filled during the holiday season. But she said that fighting hunger is a year-round battle, not just in Scotch Plains or Fanwood, but in Union County, throughout New Jersey and around the country.

In Union County, 69,260 people do not have enough food to live a healthy and active lifestyle. It’s what Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap study calls “food insecure” and locally it’s affecting 13.3 percent of residents countywide. Of that group, 47 percent do not qualify for any federal aid.

That 47 percent is the new face of the middle class. People who are recently unemployed, those who are working three jobs just to break even, or seniors who may be eligible for other benefits like Social Security but are unable to work or bring in enough income to pay for a home and put food on the table. They may be facing tough times but by legal definitions they are not poor enough to qualify for federal aid. And, so these families find themselves visiting food banks and receiving help from social service groups or churches to make ends meet.

For the first time last year, results were available at the county level and by congressional district, measuring food insecurity not only by income, but also by local meal costs. Feeding America, based in Chicago and Washington, D.C., works to feed America's hungry through a nationwide network of member food banks. The organization took on the Map the Meal Gap study, which was funded by the Howard G. Buffet Foundation and conducted by the Nielson Group using the 2009 United States Department of Agriculture Data to analyze meal cost.

It doesn’t matter if you live in Summit or Plainfield, the stats on hunger show that rising unemployment, escalating energy prices and the spiraling cost of living are making it harder for people in all walks of life to put food on their tables.

So to combat the problem, organizations such as The Community FoodBank continue to use the Map the Meal Gap Study to fight Congress for the funding they need to help this growing percentage of working poor and to protect programs like SNAP (food stamps,) WIC (a program that provides nutritional support for women, infants and children under five), and NSLP and SBP (free school breakfast and lunches.) According to the study, $29.7 million was needed to help the working poor meet their nutritional needs in 2009.

Now, one year after the study was released, officials are digging deeper into the issue and have also calculated figures on how food insecurity is affecting children. Shannon Traeger, a spokeswoman for Feeding America said the study was expanded to focus on children because mapping the meal gap has become an important tool for advocacy.

One in four children in the United States is living in a food insecure household, according to the study. Additionally, households with children experience food insecurity at a significantly higher rate than the population in general, with meal costs coming in at a higher rate as well.  The 2009 data used for the study found that 48 percent of all SNAP (food stamp) users were children.

“The fact that 1 in four children are food insecure in a state like New Jersey is shocking and eye-opening,” said Anthony Guido, Communications Director for The Community FoodBank of New Jersey. “This study helps us raise awareness to help get the media, the general public, or a politician’s attention. That is the immediate effect of (the study). The additional funding that we receive helps reach more children in need.”

In New Jersey, 19.7 percent of all children are food insecure, according to the study. That’s 394,240 children.

In Union County, the study identifies 18.2 percent of all children as food insecure or 23,600 children. Of those, 38 percent are not eligible for aid. No food stamps. No free school lunches.

After reviewing both food insecurity studies, Assemblywoman Linda Stender responded to the statistics.

“The numbers are shockingly high,” Stender said. “I feel that as we see the gap between rich and poor growing wider, it is important to protect hunger-related programs such as SNAP and WIC.  As we see the economy struggling to recover and food costs growing higher, it’s harder for families to afford nutritional food… It is especially important that every child has access to proper meals and nutrition during their growing years. Studies have shown that it is vital for children to eat properly to help them perform better in school.”

The struggling economy and need to make dollars stretch farther often has food programs on the chopping block, but Shannon Traeger said Feeding America continues to use the data to protect programs from being cut on the budget floor.

“Feeding America DC staff continues to use the data at meetings with members of Congress and their staff to show the importance of protecting anti-hunger and safety-net programs during the ongoing budget negotiations,” Traeger said. “Hunger advocates and hunger-relief partners have also used the data to educate their members of Congress in letters and during hill visits about the need for food assistance.”

Diane Riley, Director of Advocacy for The Community FoodBank of New Jersey spoke about the real threat that hunger programs have come under as politicians continue to battle the budget.

“Many people feel that the best thing they can do to combat food insecurity is to stimulate jobs. I believe that while you are stimulating jobs, you need to continue to protect these programs. The jobs that we have been creating are low income and the price of living has not gone down,” Riley stated.

No matter how staggering the statistics, sometimes the numbers don’t do enough to protect these programs. As a result, The Community FoodBank of New Jersey launched a unique campaign during September’s Hunger Action Month to help legislators understand what could happen if hunger aid programs were cut.

Thousands of food bank clients participated in a project called the “My Plate” campaign to emphasize what food banks mean to their survival. At local food banks, they would receive a plain, white paper plate where they could write or draw messages explaining how they are affected by food insecurity every day.

“Some people worry about what they’re going to wear. I worry about what I’m going to eat,” one paper plate read.

“I have now gone from helping at my food bank to needing it to get my family through the week,” another one stated.

These are the words of Union County residents who are food insecure. Their thoughts pepper those white paper plates that were collected to show legislators how hunger is spreading locally and across the Garden State.

“I gathered the plates from every congressional district we serve,” Riley said. “We gathered over 2,500 plates. Many of them were heartbreaking. No one is immune to that. They understand that these are not just stats, they’re real people and you can’t abandon them.”

“The campaign produced some really gripping drawings such as kids drawing themselves being sad or inattentive in the classroom because they were so hungry they couldn’t concentrate on school,” Guido stated.

According to Feeding America, several studies have shown that food insecurity negatively impacts cognitive development in young children, which can lead to difficulty in school later in development. Feeding America also notes that other data shows that child food insecurity can lead to increased illness resulting in higher health costs.

To keep the data fresh in the minds of local and state politicians, Guido said the food bank will continue to develop new programs.

“We started a school pantry where we go to a couple of schools for a few hours each, allowing parents of children to come in and receive food right at the school. We have also started pediatric pantries where we set up at hospitals a couple times a month and help parents whose children are currently hospitalized or being discharged. This allows us to reach more people in different pockets of food insecurity,” Guido explained.

In Union County, the Map the Meal Gap study identified a meal costing $2.57. However, one should note that that meal cost refers to a nutritious meal prepared with healthy staples purchased at a supermarket.

“Many of those who are food insecure are living in a food desert where access to a supermarket is so difficult, that settling for a bodega or fast food simply because they cannot get to a grocery store is more common,” Guido said. “We distributed 2-and-a-half million pounds of fresh produce in the last year. The problem is not only continuing to get 2 million pounds of fresh food, but turning it around right away. We want to set up more places for people to find us such as school or mobile pantries.”

In addition to these programs, the food bank also wants to improve its school backpack program, which transports food home with children every Friday so that it meets the needs of more family members, and, becomes more involved with facilitating summer meals.

“When schools are closed, children miss out on their free and reduced breakfast and lunch. That is a huge opening that needs to be filled,” Guido said. “This new Child Food Insecurity study will definitely spur us to try and incorporate a summer feeding program this coming year.”

Of those who receive aid from the FoodBank, about 55 percent are children and seniors. Riley and Guido said fighting for programs like SNAP that provide food stamps to the needy is as critical now as it has ever been.

While some might say SNAP is a drain on the economy, Riley disagrees.

“It’s not only a very good program; it’s a very efficient program for getting some stimulus out there,” she said.  “The money provided by SNAP is spent right away because people need it. It is also spent locally. This is not a runaway cost as it is sometimes erroneously portrayed.”

Food bank advocates say fighting food insecurity does not end there.

“Some people think that SNAP is the cure-all for everyone that is in this situation. That 47 percent opens everyone’s eyes to the fact that almost half the people who are in this situation can’t even get food stamps or WIC. The Map the Meal Gap study has helped us show congressional leaders the importance of funding our food pantries and agencies because the working poor have nowhere else to turn,” Guido said.

Representatives from Congressman Leonard Lance’s Office said Lance supported the H.R. 2112 bill last week, supporting overall food funding for domestic food assistance programs (including SNAP, WIC, and free school breakfast and lunch) totaling $105.6 billion.  Representatives added that the congressman fought against major cuts to SNAP in 2010.

Lance and Stender each have hosted food drives and expressed their commitment to community-based organizations, such as the Community FoodBank of New Jersey. Stender said that residents can drop off holiday food drive donations at her office located at 1801 East Second Street in Scotch Plains.

The Community FoodBank of New Jersey receives 25 percent of its food from the government as part of The Commodities Supplemental Food Program. This food is then transported to other pantries and to seniors who rely on the regular donations.

“(The supplemental program) allows us to serve about 2,000 seniors throughout northern and central New Jersey,” Guido said. “We know that the seniors are a growing population and that they have to make really tough choices in how to survive. Many physically can’t walk or drive to go to a place to get better food choices.”

As Congress continues to work with the 2012 budget, Feeding America keeps a close eye on what programs are at risk.

“You can’t cut these programs right now,” Riley said. “Which seniors are you going to tell won’t be getting their box of food when you cut the (supplemental food) program? How do you do that when all of them need it?”

Assemblywoman Linda Stender added that while the programs are important, they must be watched carefully.

“Programs need to be monitored and audited to prevent waste fraud and abuse so that successful programs can continue to be properly funded.  Unfortunately, if cuts are made we will have to look more towards our community to help out,” Stender said.

Feeding America and The Community FoodBank will continue to use the Map the Meal Gap Study and related data to raise awareness and protect the programs that help those below and above the poverty line. Guido expressed that going forward he would like to see a similar study done for seniors in the way that Child Food Insecurity was measured. Riley said she would like to see the statistics narrowed even further.

“I hope that we can have a Map the Meal Gap slice of cities like Newark. It would be helpful to examine the childhood need within the school districts to learn how to make programs like School Breakfast more effective,” she said.

Aside from new studies and fresh data, Riley said the best weapon for fighting hunger is for affected families to share their stories.

“Advocacy is not just about calling your congressperson,” she said. “Advocacy is telling your story of hunger as seen through your eyes to everyone you know.”

The Scotch Plains food pantry recently delivered 24 Thanksgiving baskets (containing everything you need to create a Thanksgiving meal) to families across Scotch Plains and Fanwood. Madeline Rutkowski explained that the pantry will also be hosting a giving tree to collect holiday gifts for local families in need. Trees with lists of items to purchase can be found at the Scotch Plains Library, and both municipal buildings. The Fanwood YMCA also conducts a toy drive to contribute to this effort.

For Rutkowski, the toys on the tree remind her of the clients she sees every week.

“When I go to collect the gifts, I remember which daughter likes princesses and I can’t wait to see their face when they receive a princess doll,” she said. “Holidays are especially hard for our clients. So many other kids take things for granted but when these families receive a new coat, or even donated Spiderman sheets, you can immediately tell how grateful they are.”

To learn more about the Map the Meal Gap study or to make a donation that can feed hungry families, click here.

To drop off food donations at local pantries, see the list below.

Food Pantry Location Hours Contact Needs Cranford Family Care Association 61 Myrtle Street, Cranford, NJ 07016

9 a.m. to 4 p.m. M-F

908-276-3530 Perishables and non-perishables, funding
Elmora Soup Kitchen First Baptist Church of Elizabeth, 402 Union Street 3 to 4 p.m. Sunday 909-352-0579 Funding: Send donations to the First Presbyterian Church of Cranford at 11 Springfield Avenue, Cranford, New Jersey 07016 St. John's Food Pantry Clark Recreation Cafeteria: 430 Westfield Ave., Clark
Noon to 2 p.m. third Tues of every month 732-388-1216 Volunteers needed from 10 a.m. to noon before distribution Scotch Plains Food Pantry 430 Park Ave., Scotch Plains, NJ 9:30 to 11 a.m. Tuesdays 908-322-6700 Non-perishables Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry at St. Theresa 306 Morris Ave., Summit, NJ 07901 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. Wed 908-277-3700 Non-perishables Sage Elder Care Meals on Wheels 290 Broad Street, Summit, NJ 07901 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. M-F 908-273-5554 Non-perishables, volunteers to sort, pack, deliver, fund raisers Westfield Food Pantry at Holy Trinity 336 First Street, Westfield, NJ 07090 Five mornings a weeks Bill Crandall 908-233-5446 or Tom Conheeney 908-233-2145 Cereal, tuna, peanut butter, jelly, volunteers, funding
Elizabethport Presbyterian Center 184 First Street, Elizabeth, NJ 07206 2 to 4 p.m. last Wed and Fri of the month 908-659-2182 Non-perishables; volunteers to pack, stock, drive and inventory First Baptist Church Food Pantry 402 Union Avenue, Elizabeth, NJ 07208 4 to 7 p.m. on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Thurs 908-352-0519 Non-perishables, food, funding Hope Center 1181 East Broad Street, Elizabeth, NJ 07201 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sat (no pantry 5th Sat of any month, closed Thanksgiving weekend) 800-736-2773, 908-994-HOPE

Individual servings, pull-top tuna, fruit, soups, stews, chili, juice boxes, crackers & cheese or peanut butter, cereal/granola bars, etc.

Jefferson Park Ministries 477 Madison Avenue, Elizabeth, NJ 07201 10 a.m. to noon and 4 to 6 p.m. on 2nd and 4th Thurs of each month 908-629-0041 Food, funding and volunteers to load & unload trucks, pack food bags, restock pantry Jewish Family Service of Central NJ 655 Westfield Ave., Elizabeth, NJ 07208 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. M-F 908-352-8375 Non-perishable kosher food only, funding
Liberty Baptist Church 515-17 Court Street, Elizabeth, NJ 07206 1 to 2 p.m. Monday 908-354-3362 Non-perishables and perishables Mount Temon Church Food Pantry and Soup Kitchen 160 Madison Avenue, Elizabeth, NJ 07201 10 a.m. to noon 3rd Thurs 908-351-2625

Cereal, jelly, canned vegetables, snacks for kids, large cans for soup kitchen

Special needs: volunteers, storage space, refrigerator, freezer

Saint Joseph Social Service Center 118 Division St., Elizabeth, NJ 07201 Every 3rd Tues and on an emergency basis every 4th Tues
(Clients may only pick up food once a month)
Soup Kitchen - Sat 908-352-2989 Non-perishables, volunteers, funding, vehicle, warehouse space Saint Mary of the Assumption Race Street (back of church), Elizabeth, NJ 07202 Food Pantry: 9 to 11 a.m. on 3rd, 4th, 5th Tues
Soup Kitchen: 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th Wed 908-352-5154 x24

Non-perishables especially dry food, canned vegetables, fruit, meat, & tuna, baby food, powdered milk

Special needs: volunteers, funding, diapers, personal care items, people with vehicles to pick up food

Salvation Army Pantry and Soup Kitchen 1005 E. Jersey Street, Elizabeth, NJ 07201 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. M-F 908 352-7057 Non-perishables, funding LPC Mission Project 1506 Orchard Terr., Linden, NJ 07036 9 to 11 a.m. 4th Fri of each month and by appointment 908-486-3073 Cereal, jelly, canned vegetables, canned fruit, pancake mix, pancake syrup, powdered milk Linden Interfaith Network for Community Services 45 E. Elm Street, Linden, NJ 07036 Contact site. (usually 3rd Mon & Tues of month) 908 925-2523 Non-perishables, volunteers, grant writers St. John the Apostle Pantry 1805 Penbrook Terrace, Linden, NJ 07036 2nd and 4th Fri of each month 732-388-1216 Non-perishables, funding, truck transportation from Community Food Bank Grace's Kitchen 600 Cleveland Avenue, Plainfield, NJ 07060 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. last five days of every month except Sundays 908-756-1520 Food, volunteers, toiletries, laundry soaps, used clothing HomeFirst Interfaith Housing and Family Services 905 Watchung Avenue, Plainfield, NJ 07060 This site provides shelter, education, child care and advocacy 908-753-4001C x16 Volunteers, funding Plainfield Salvation Army 615 Watchung Avenue, Plainfield, NJ 07060 Food Pantry: Tues & Thurs: 9:30-11:30am & 1-2:30pm
Soup Kitchen: Mon-Fri: 12-12:45pm 908-756-2595 Non-perishables and perishables, volunteers, monetary donations
Starfish Food Pantry 631 East Front St., Plainfield, NJ 07060 Contact site 908-755-8888 Non-perishables, volunteers, monetary donations Rahway Food for Friends 1221 New Brunswick Avenue, Rahway, NJ 07065 Mon and Tues last week of the month (call for times) 732-388-3988 Non-perishables, refrigeration Helping Hands: Church of St. Joseph the Carpenter 157 E. 4th Avenue, Roselle, NJ 07203 2nd Sunday of each month 908 241-1250 Non-perishables, volunteers, paper products HEARD A.M.E. Food Pantry Program 310 E. 8th Avenue, Roselle, NJ 07203 10 a.m. to noon Saturday 908-241-6890 Non-perishables, frozen food, volunteers, funding

 To participate in a food, toy or coat drive, see the list below:

Food Drive Location Organization Items Needed Check Out Hunger in NJ Berkeley Heights Public Library Community FoodBank of NJ Canned meat or fish, powdered milk, infant formula, canned soups and stews, canned vegetables and fruits, peanut butter and boxed pasta, rice
Holiday Food/Toy Drive Clark Municipal Building: 430 Westfield Ave. Room 18 St. John's Food Pantry and Clark Health Department Food donations and toys can be dropped off between 8:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday-Friday. A toy box is located outside of Room 18. Westfield Food Drive Nov. 28-Dec. 21 Westfield Memorial Library Community FoodBank of NJ Items can be left in library lobby from 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday-Thursday, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays.
Jersey Cares Coat Drive Assemblyman Jon Bramnick's office: 251 North Ave., Westfield
Jersey Cares Gently used coats will be accepted through Monday, Dec. 12. The office hours are  from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.  For more information, call 908-232-2073, email asmbramnick@njleg.org or visit www.jerseycares.org.
Walter Korfmacher November 23, 2011 at 01:59 PM
Thanks for running this informative article. Many people may be surprised to learn that 1 in 5 children in NJ live in poverty and at times do not have enough food to eat. I was pleased to learn that our Congressman Leonard Lance supported the H.R. 2112 bill last week, supporting overall food funding for domestic food assistance programs (including SNAP, WIC, and free school breakfast and lunch). In this time of budget cutting, we must guard against budget cuts that hurt effective programs that provide a safety net for our nation's children that live in poverty. Thanks to Representative Lance for supporting these important programs.
John Leustek November 24, 2011 at 01:10 AM
This is a very well written article and couldn't have been better timed. With Thanksgiving, the holiday of bountiful harvest and over-indulgence, right around the corner, I think it's important to remember that there are people who struggle to find their next meal right in our neighborhoods. Hopefully this article brings some long-deserved attention to this important social issue.
Marianne Kranz November 24, 2011 at 04:25 AM
Thank you, thank you for promoting this! Give to the place closest to you. We at SAGE Eldercare bring food to the homebound elderly in Union, Essex, Morris and Somerset Counties. We need LOW SODIUM soups, tuna fish, oatmeal, granola bars and lunch pack sized snacks and juice. Bring us anything! We work with other agencies so nothing goes to waste. We are at 290 Broad Street in Summit - 908-273-5554. Food can be dropped off between 8:00 am and 5:00 pm.
Patrick Nash November 24, 2011 at 03:28 PM
The Douglas Auto Group is running a holiday food drive from Nov 21st-Dec 21st right here in Summit. You can drop off canned goods at either Douglas Infiniti at 430 Morris Ave or Douglas Volkswagen at 491 Morris Ave.
Gerry November 25, 2011 at 01:29 PM
What a timely article

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