July 12, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Bergen County Food Pantry Seeks New Home

The Bergen County Kosher Pantry opened right after Pesach 2020. A local Facebook group had begun sharing leftover, unopened Pesach food at the peak of the coronavirus pandemic. Someone volunteered the garage of their unoccupied property, with the idea to use the garage as a small warehouse. People came to exchange items by leaving and taking what they wanted, with no contact required. There was also a refrigerator in the garage for perishables.

It soon occurred to the owner that there were a lot of people who were unemployed due to COVID-19, and that many of the visitors to the pantry were coming only to seek food for their own families. Prior to the onset of the pandemic, local stores had been donating items elsewhere, and were now looking for a place to resume their donations. When potential donors and volunteers learned that a garage had been established and was available for families who needed food, additional volunteers started bringing food from these retailers to the garage. Before long the garage morphed into what later became an “unofficial pantry” for food donation drop-offs and pickups as needed.

With the passage of time and the increase in demand, it soon became clear that more refrigeration was needed. The pantry representatives posted the situation on social media, and people responded with not only several refrigerator donations, but also volunteers and vehicles to deliver them.

Later in 2020, the federally-funded food distribution began with kosher box options provided locally; many recipients donated extra items they couldn’t use to the pantry for others in need. Initially, the garage door was left open for easy access. But it didn’t take long for some furry-tailed neighborhood friends to figure out there was a “free lunch” program in progress! When the squirrels and raccoons joined as recipients, the pantry decided to install a keypad garage door opener, and gave the access code to anyone who asked.

Then, of course, there were garage-door-opener issues, but luckily one of the volunteers (who owns a garage-door company) sent over some technicians whenever the door opener “got in a mood.”

The hashgacha pratis has been amazing. While there were certainly growing pains initially, the flow and management has become smooth and organized. As simchas and large shul kiddushim began to reemerge, the pantry started receiving large trays and pans of food. It became obvious then that volunteers were needed to repack the food into smaller containers for individual distribution. So they purchased packing materials and sanitary food-handling supplies. Then a new wave of daily volunteers, along with volunteers from SINAI twice a week, came to repack unused food from simchas.

A local family who had heard about the pantry early on has been donating fresh challahs every week. Sometimes before a Yom Tov they also donate fresh produce. In general, however, most of the food donations come from local stores or events.

The challenge for the operation of the pantry is that the owners of the property housing it were ready for demolition, and electricity was shut off. While the pantry was quickly moved to a temporary location in another garage nearby, that property is also scheduled for demolition. So in the very near future, the pantry stands to be without a location, with over 80 families who rely on it for sustenance.

Another challenge is in maintaining anonymity of the recipients. At the old location, they weren’t certain how many families were being serviced. However, when the new garage was established, people were asked to register with their general contact information in order to receive the address of the new (now current) location. Information was kept confidential, and no personal information was collected. In general, people abide by the consideration that when someone enters the garage, others wait before going in.

The ideal location would be a garage with space for five refrigerators, some storage shelves for supplies, and room for two folding tables to repack and seal the food. It must be easily accessible for drop-offs, as well as for people coming to take what they need. In addition, the ideal location would not be too public, yet would be a location where people would feel safe going alone. Optimally, it would be heated, as there are volunteers who pack food during the winter months.

It’s possible that the pantry might be able to pay a small amount of rent for the right location, with solicited funds from local donors. Anyone who has ideas for a potential location, or to find out more about the pantry, please email
[email protected].

By Ellie Wolf

 

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