By EmmaLee Italia | Correspondent
Summer offers many reasons for people to look forward to the season – beach weather, vacation time, relaxed schedules and a break from school. But for many across the Diocese of Trenton, that break presents a very real challenge: hunger.
Food pantries, typically supplied not only by state and federally funded food banks and monies, also rely heavily on the generosity of their neighbors: local parishes, schools and individuals who remember the nutritional needs of the less fortunate during their grocery trips and food drives. While people take a summer break, however, hunger certainly does not.
Mount Carmel Guild, Trenton
Since her 2009 appointment as executive director of the Mount Carmel Guild, Trenton, Marie Gladney has seen the organization’s food pantry storeroom go through countless fluctuations in the summer months.
“One year I walked into our pantry area, and looked on the shelf – we had spaghetti sauce but no pasta,” she recalled.
This season, the patronage has remained fairly consistent, Gladney said, who is grateful that “we haven’t had to turn people away yet.” But from the guild’s perspective, the summertime donations from individuals and organizations definitely decrease.
“People are away, and even where we pick up the free and discounted rate food, allocations to us are smaller in the summer than the rest of the year,” said Gladney. “Summer’s tough.”
As with other food pantries, Mount Carmel Guild is able to purchase supplemental food at a significant discount from the Mercer Street Friends food bank. This, combined with the generosity of individuals, small businesses and parishes, allows the guild to keep its shelves stocked.
Additionally, the guild offers a Feeding Family Fridays program in July and August, open to select families with children enrolled in Trenton schools.
“We provide kid-friendly foods – fresh produce, snacks and juice,” Gladney explained. “It helps them since they don’t get three meals a day like during the school year.”
About 41 seniors also receive a box of food per month, and food is given to the nursing patients the Guild’s nursing services visit monthly.
“We serve a total of about 650-700 households a month – about 1300-1400 people within those households,” Gladney said.
During the rest of the year, Mount Carmel Guild gets a boost from businesses, parishes and nonprofits that run food collections, schools collecting canned goods, and even individuals showing up with turkeys for Thanksgiving.
“It’s generational,” Gladney observed. “People give because their parents gave, whose grandparents gave before that.”
Mercer County CYO, Hamilton
When Mercer County Catholic Youth Organization expanded its East State Street food pantry in the Bromley Neighborhood Civic Center, Hamilton, reopening in May, the press it generated in both The Monitor and in other area news outlets helped fuel a substantial uptick in food donations.
“We had a great initial reaction to that,” said Thomas G. Mladenetz, CYO Mercer executive director. “Both groups and individuals contacted us, and as a result, donated … but now it’s leveled off. We need to get another push out there.”
The food pantry, serving all ages, assists 50-60 people per month; in 2016, more than 600 families benefited from the resource, Mladenetz said. Eligible families visit the pantry once a month to pick up a box of state and federally funded food, supplemented by private and local donations of non-perishable goods.
Meanwhile, children who attend the CYO Bromley Neighborhood Center’s summer camps are served breakfast, lunch and snack during the program.
“It’s a great thing,” Mladenetz affirmed. “It’s particularly serving those kids who, while they’re in school, receive free and reduced lunches. We partner with Mercer Street Friends food bank, and Hamilton Township, which also partners with the state [for food donations for the program].”
Additionally, the Bromley Center provides a Summer Food Service Program – a weekday free lunch program June 29 to Aug. 12 at 1 p.m. for Hamilton Township residents between the ages of five and 14.
“Parents register their children for the program, and they can come [to the Bromley Center] for lunch. Then on Fridays, they get a food pack to bring home for the weekend,” Mladenetz explained. “It’s going very well.”
Despite the generosity of diocesan parishes and individuals, however, the need remains high. “Obviously we depend heavily on donors,” Mladenetz confirmed. “And a gift of non-perishables is the best way to donate.”
Project PAUL, Keansburg
With its mission to help the “Poor, Alienated, Unemployed and Lonely,” Project PAUL, Keansburg, has been operating a thrift store and food pantry since 1990. Because of their cooperation with not only federal and state-funded food banks and funding, but also area grocery stores, the food pantry has been able to maintain a steady supply.
“We are not noticing a lull [during the summer],” said Sal Cortale, Project PAUL executive director. “We are very blessed.”
Stores such as Costco, Foodtown and Stop & Shop have contributed to the Project PAUL pantry, as have individuals and parishes in the area.
“We get about 25 percent of our food through individual donations,” Cortale confirmed. “We are able to give both frozen and non-perishable food items.”
Visitors scan a special card that identifies them as a registered pantry patron. In this way the pantry is able to keep track of the number of clients and visits made annually.
“In 2016, cards were scanned 11,425 times,” Cortale explained. “That represents both families and individuals in each visit.”
Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton
With food pantries operating in three of the Diocese of Trenton’s four counties – Ocean, Mercer and Burlington – Catholic Charities has a monumental task keeping up with summer food needs.
“Summer just seems to be a quieter time,” said Lisa Thibault, Catholic Charities communications manager. “People are on vacation, their mind isn’t on [food donations] – and demand for food has increased because children are at home for all three meals.”
In Ocean County, for example, about 1,800 individuals per month visit the Catholic Charities pantry for a pre-packaged food donation.
“The food bags supply three meals per day for each household member for three days,” Thibault said. “It’s just a supplement. At most of our food pantries, staff members hear that people are going from pantry to pantry to meet their needs.”
Overall, 87-90 percent of funding for Catholic Charities is provided by county, state and federal grants; the remainder comes from individual, corporate and parish donations.
“Public funding was never meant to cover all our needs,” said Thibault. “We rely heavily on private donations – it’s really our backbone, and we’re so grateful for it.”
Non-perishable food items are always a much-needed – and much appreciated – donation, Thibault confirmed. Back to school supplies and monetary donations are also essential.
“Monetary donations [to the food pantries or Community Services of Catholic Charities] are the most versatile because they can be used to purchase food, or replace a freezer if it breaks down in one of the pantries,” Thibault explained. “Online donations can be used to pay the food pantry bill, which we use to buy food in bulk – it’s the way we get the most bang for our buck.”