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Picked up food from a food pantry in New Jersey? Here’s where it came from

Essex County has more than one hundred free food distribution efforts year-round. Here is how that food gets from farms, food banks, and supermarkets to the tens of thousands who rely on it weekly.

BY KIMBERLY IZARMELISSA DIPENTO & SIMON GALPERIN ● ESSEX COUNTYREPORTING ● JUNE 4, 2024

On any day of the week, at least a handful of food pantries or free food distribution efforts are underway in Essex County. 

Every Friday afternoon, dozens of families with children line a block of South Orange Avenue in Newark, N.J. Some brave the elements for nearly two hours to bring home food for the weekend ahead. As soon as the food distribution begins, guests quickly trickle into the Newark Water Coalition office and pack their bags with what’s available for the week – potatoes, carrots, bananas, tomatoes, onions, and jugs of filtered water.

Similar scenes unfold in neighboring Montclair, Orange, Irvington, Bloomfield, West Orange, and other areas of the county touched by one of seven food deserts.

But where does this supplemental food come from? What does it consist of? And is it addressing the needs of local residents?

The Jersey Bee produced this explainer to help people receiving food aid in New Jersey understand how their food is sourced and salvaged.

 A food pantry guest holds up his food pantry haul, which includes bananas, carrots, tomatoes, and potatoes. Photo by Kimberly Izar.

Who supplies supplemental food? 

Through a complex and sometimes patchwork system, hundreds of food providers in Essex County source and distribute food aid daily. 

A map of New Jersey’s food aid system shows how food banks, pantries, and community groups distribute and share food sourced from restaurants, supermarkets, farms, wholesale distributors, and the federal government. Food rescue groups help facilitate local food distribution. While some food is donated, the majority is purchased or rescued. Image by Simon Galperin.

Food banks or networks

Many local food assistance efforts source their food from larger food banks or networks with warehouses to store, sort, and distribute food products. At least half a dozen food pantries that The Jersey Bee spoke to said their largest food supplier was the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, which supports more than 800 community partners annually. 

Farms or gardens

Local farms or gardens often donate or sell produce to food banks, pantries, or rescue efforts. New Jersey’s “Jersey Fresh For All” program is one important source of food for the state’s food banks. However, restrictions limit which farmers are considered “socially disadvantaged,” how funds can be used, and which food banks producers can sell to.

Other local farms like Montclair Community Farms opt to grow the food themselves and directly partner with local food distribution efforts. 

Food rescue programs

Unlike large-scale food banks, food rescue programs focus primarily on perishable food. Volunteers and staff collect perishable food, pre-packaged meals, and other food items from suppliers and often deliver the food to nearby food pantries later that day.

Commercial food wholesalers and distributors 

Wholesale clubs like BJ’s and Costco, supermarkets, and large-scale distributors like Driscoll Foods are primary sources of food aid for many food assistance networks and programs. 

How is supplemental food gathered?

Food assistance is sourced through four methods: gleaning, purchasing, donation, and government allocation. 

Gleaning

Gleaning is when individuals collect excess food from farms, markets, restaurants, grocery stores, and other sources that would otherwise be thrown out. Programs like Table to TableMEND, and Newark Working Kitchens are some of Essex County’s food assistance operations running local gleaning programs.

During a Table to Table food rescue in April 2024, Maria Sinopoli loaded 14 boxes of produce, bread, and other food items from Whole Foods into her car before delivering them to a nearby community partner in Orange. Photos by Kimberly Izar.

Purchasing

Many pantries and food banks purchase food themselves to keep their inventory stocked. The money comes from individual donations or private or government grants designated to improve food access or alleviate food deserts.

Robin Peacock, Executive Director of MEND, explained that while purchasing food gives the organization more room to be selective about the quality, the costs can quickly add up.

“We spend, on average, about forty to forty-five thousand [dollars] a month,” said Peacock. “Our focus is really three things: high quality, culturally relevant, fresh and health[y food]. Those three things are at odds with the traditional model, which is the boxed and canned goods that will have shelf stable life.” 

Sourcing locally is also a priority for MEND. Nearly two-thirds of their food purchases are from local or regional producers. Still, these items tend to be more costly. 

Donation

Food pantries may receive donations from supermarkets, food banks, wholesalers, food drives, and other sources. Community members or groups who host food drives can also donate to pantries. However, some mutual aid food efforts don’t qualify for major donations because they aren’t registered as a 501(c)3 nonprofit with the IRS.

Government allocation

The federal government purchases food directly from agricultural producers to distribute through food banks nationwide.

“Eggs, cheese, milk, fish, and grains come to us by the truckloads,” said Gleny Herlihy, Senior Director of Food Sourcing at Community Food Bank of New Jersey.

From small pantries to large food banks, many explained that utilizing all these methods is necessary to meet people’s needs and requires around-the-clock people power.

“It’s not one of those situations where one [strategy] fits all,” said Herlihy.

Another pantry organizer agreed, sharing that one food source simply isn’t enough. They said while they were grateful for donations from the food bank, it wasn’t sufficient to serve its hundreds of clients each week. 

“We get what [food banks] give us and then we purchase that extra pallet or two, whether it’s produce, eggs, cereal. Whatever it is, we make up the difference,” they said. 

What kind of food is gathered?

The short answer: it depends on what is available. 

While there is no standard pantry bag, most distribution efforts try to include a mix of produce, protein, bread, and primarily non-perishable items. Yet the quality of these items can significantly vary.

Distribution boxes at the Community Food Bank of NJ were sorted by volunteers and packed for older adults eligible for the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, a federal government assistance program for low-income seniors over 60 years old who qualify for supplemental food. Photo by Kimberly Izar.

“Even gleaning from grocery stores is the stuff that’s about to expire. You know – the oranges that are looking pretty sad,” said Peacock. “We have volunteers that will go through it, but we try not to send it out if it’s not something we would pick…off the shelf.”

Heather Thompson, Executive Director of Table to Table, said her organization sources a type of food that’s hard to get: fresh produce. 

“When people do community food drives, what’s being collected [are] shelf stable things: canned foods, pastas, rice, beans, cereals,” said Thompson. 

Last year, more than 60 percent of the food Table to Table rescued was produce.

Ensuring food quality is increasingly more challenging, according to Herlihy, the Community Food Bank of New Jersey’s senior sourcing director. She said her team has doubled down on scrutinizing food ingredients.

“Sometimes when you look at ground meat, if you look at the ingredient carefully, you can see that there has been other additives to the meat,” said Herlihy.

Herlihy described one food vendor bid that included grounded turkey bones in their turkey meat.

“Now companies are getting creative, and they’re using different words, and it’s like ‘What does that mean?’”

Is this working?

This network of food providers aims to serve the one in nine residents in Essex County who don’t get enough food to feed themselves each week. 

However, sourcing food for a variety of dietary preferences, limitations, allergies, and health conditions can be challenging. The overwhelming majority of food pantries that The Jersey Bee spoke to said they could not make dietary accommodations for pantry guests.

“[Guests] have some options on maybe an item or two, but we’re really limited,” said one pantry organizer.

They also shared the challenge of responding to shifting client demographics.

One pantry organizer explained that the demographics of its clients are changing, and so must the kinds of food they distribute. They said their client demographics have shifted from primarily English-speaking Black residents to Spanish and Haitian Creole-speaking residents in the past few years. Many pantry organizers The Jersey Bee spoke to said language barrier have become one of their biggest hurdles.

Timing and other restrictions also inhibit food access. Most food pantries are only open for a few hours per week. And depending on the pantry, options are reserved for older adults, registered clients, religious congregation members, or residents who live in specific zip codes.

Thompson at Table to Table called the expectation that lower-income households should be happy with whatever they get “a great injustice.”

“Food isn’t just about filling our bellies. It’s not just about achieving a balanced diet,” Thompson said. “It’s also about celebration and comfort and culture and memory…that is the luxury and dignity that a lot of people do not get afforded when their choices are so limited.”

How much does the supplemental food system cost?

Feeding America notes that people facing hunger in New Jersey need an additional $540 million per year to meet their food needs.

The state of New Jersey spent nearly one-third of that figure on powering the state’s network of food banks and pantries in the 2023-2024 budget year.

For the 2024-2025 budget, New Jersey plans to allocate $201 million to its food aid system – just 0.3 percent of the $55.9 billion budget.

That amount doesn’t include money allocated by foundations, health departments, and other stakeholders trying to meet the need. 

Then there are also non-monetary costs to communities. 

In 2023, the Community Food Bank of New Jersey’s volunteers devoted nearly 88,000 hours to support their work. The food bank’s fleet of trucks drove about 390,000 miles. 

Table to Table’s more than 250 volunteers completed more than 6,000 food rescues in the same year. 

Unfortunately, pantry guests are likely to bear the most significant unaccounted costs. These include hours spent traveling and waiting for food, transportation costs, lost wages, as well as the negative health and economic impacts of food insecurity. Despite these costs, many food pantry guests say they are still grateful for their hauls, whatever they can get.

“We accept what they give us with humility,” said one Newark food pantry guest. “I wouldn’t be able to say I need more because it would just be egotistical of me. What they give is really good.”

Credit: https://jerseybee.org/2024/06/04/picked-up-food-from-a-food-pantry-heres-where-it-came-from/

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