When the Hopewell Valley Mobile Food Pantry was created as a response to the early days of the COVID pandemic, former Pennington Mayor Joe Lawver and the Pantry’s other founders thought it might be up and running for several weeks, or maybe a couple of months.
Now, as the organizers look ahead to the Pantry’s third anniversary on March 13, it is clear the need is as great as it ever was. Since August, as food prices rose, demand increased by 20%. The recent end to COVID enhanced benefits through SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps), will probably further increase demand in the coming months.
“The need is never going to go away,” Lawver said. “This is going to go on as long as we’re here.”
On Saturday, Lawver met with representatives of a group of Brandon Farms residents to accept a check to cover the cost of a new upright refrigerator/freezer for the Pantry.
“Brandon Farm friends expressed interest to give back to the community during one of their informal coffee conversations,” explained Hopewell Township Committee member Uma Purandare. “Coincidentally, I happened to talk to Joe Lawver to better understand the current needs at Hopewell Valley Mobile Food pantry. To address the Pantry’s need, funds were raised by the generous donation [of the Brandon Farms friends] to buy the equipment. This project is an example, “of the community, by the community, for the community.”
The new refrigerator/freezer, and an existing commercial refrigerator, allow the Pantry to distribute fresh produce, eggs, and other perishables as part of its weekly distribution, Lawver said. The freezer may also allow the pantry to start collecting and distributing proteins that need to be frozen.
“That’s what’s so important about the refrigerator. We can keep things fresh,” Lawver said.
Lawver shared with the group the story of an elderly Hopewell Township veteran who’d been utilizing the pantry for the past 18 months or so. The man was stricken with COVID and spent four weeks in the hospital. For the elderly, COVID can be a death sentence. But his doctors attributed his recovery in part to his high-quality diet, which the pantry helped provide.
“It’s that the kind of impact we’re having,” Lawver said. “And it wouldn’t be possible without the help of the community.”
The idea for a mobile food pantry was first broached by then-school superintendent Thomas Smith, who worried that, while the school would still be able to provide breakfast and lunch to low-income students during the pandemic, their families might be dealing with job loss or other factors of food insecurity. Lawver, then mayor of Pennington borough, reached out to his contacts and the Pantry was created with the first few boxes of donations that were distributed, along with breakfast and lunch during the school day, using the school buses that had been idled in the early days of the pandemic.
The effort took off from there. The Pantry moved into the gymnasium connected to the Hopewell Valley Regional School District offices. A donation box was set up out front and food goods filled the make-shift shelves, some built by a local contractor and some in the works as part of a local boy’s Eagle Scout project.
Community groups also began doing food collections at local grocery stores. Purandare says the group from Brandon Farms sets up every three months outside Pennington Quality Market, which also has been quite supportive, to collect pantry items.
The Pantry gets no public funding and is an all-volunteer effort funded by about $40,000 a year in donations, which is used mainly to buy food. The Pantry also partners with the Hopewell YMCA, Arm in Arm, Mercer Street Friends, Home Front, TASK, and several local farms and businesses that donate 500 to 1,000 pounds of produce weekly. High school student groups volunteer on Tuesdays to put together delivery boxes.
The Pantry delivers groceries to 95 families every Wednesday and provides Grab-and-Go provisions — two full bags of groceries plus a bag of produce — to 30-50 people every Saturday morning. There also is a pick-up bin outside the gym that is stocked for people to stop by during other hours. The produce is one of the most appreciated items, according to Maude Tatar, one of the volunteer coordinators.
The Pantry serves anybody in the community and doesn’t require proof of need or residency. Families come from neighboring townships as well, and nobody is turned away.
About 40% of the pantry’s clientele is seniors,” Lawver said, which was a bit of a surprise when they started. As many as half are working people who don’t earn enough to make ends meet and most of the others are people in transition or in crisis because of a job loss or change in circumstances.
And while some people are surprised that food insecurity is an issue in a place like Hopewell Valley, which is assumed to be so prosperous, Purandare said it’s important to look deeper into the community
“The need is there,” she said. “COVID made us see that. And even if COVID is ending, the need is not.”
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