In the early days of the COVID-19 shutdown, the federal government sought to provide food to children in low-income households who had been receiving free school breakfasts and lunches but could no longer do so. The result was “Keep Kids Fed,” a federally funded program by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that provided boxes of food so kids would have three meals a day at home.
A number of Jewish schools across the region were able to provide aid as well, with kosher food packages available to families with children under 18. As a result, thousands of families in the region received, at no cost, boxes of food that included milk, bread, cereal, prepared items, fruit, vegetables and more.
But, as is always the case when it comes to food, not everyone liked everything in every box. People started to share items with friends and neighbors who weren’t eligible to receive the boxes. To help connect people who had items to give away with people who could use them, community WhatsApp groups began popping up across the area.
“The food boxes that were available to our community helped not just the Jewish community, but the broader community as well because people gave things to their neighbors, their employees, etc.,” said Marni Gold, who created the Teaneck Food Share WhatsApp during the lockdown. “Since the boxes stopped, people who have extra food and have the means to share have continued to do so. It’s a wonderful thing because not everyone has the means, and some people are still out of work.”
That reality was brought home clearly to Teaneck resident Gabriel Geller when he posted that he had some cake left over from his son’s birthday party.
“It’s one thing to give away something you don’t like; however, when you post that you have a third of a birthday cake available, and within seconds someone says they will take it, that shows there is a deep issue of food insecurity in our community,” he said. “If you had told me three or four months ago that someone would want a piece of birthday cake, I would have thought you were crazy, but now I know if there’s anything edible and not spoiled, I will post it on the chat.”
When a community member posted on a West Orange WhatsApp that they were giving away bags of Bamba, Zalman Miller responded that he’d take them, as his kids love the snack. But as the administrator of the Whatsapp group—he started it and runs it with his friend Evan Galantz—he knows not everyone can pick and choose what items they want.
“When people say, ‘I’ll just take everything you have,’ you know they are in a different situation,” Miller said. “I’m still surprised that there are people in need in our community. I didn’t think there were so many people in that situation.”
“While people think that 2020 was the peak time for food aid, we have continued to see a demand equal to that time,” said David Greenfield, CEO and executive director of Met Council, which runs what is perhaps the most extensive food distribution program in the region. “Sadly though, it is our supply that isn’t keeping pace, not to mention even though we access our products in bulk, we too are subject to the rising and fluctuating costs of food.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index, the price of goods rose 3.2% from July 2022 to July 2023, the most recent numbers available. Food eaten at home cost 4.9% more last month than it did the previous year, and that’s in addition to higher costs for clothing, shelter and electricity.
And while wages are trending upward nationally, interest rates are also marching ever higher, adding to people’s financial worries.
“It’s a cycle,” said Rachel Krich, executive director of Project Ezrah. “It’s harder than ever to maintain the status quo. We just keep getting more and more people reaching out to us.”
According to the Economic Policy Institute Family Budget Calculator, a family of four—two parents and two children—living in the Bergen County/Passaic County metro area must make an average of $8,869 a month to secure a “modest, yet adequate standard of living.” That number factors in costs such as housing, transportation, taxes, health care, food and child care.
The budget does not include those factors that are crucial for a religious life, such as yeshiva tuition, kosher meat, shul dues, mikvah fees and more, suggesting that a Jewish family may need to make significantly more to live in the region and simply have a “modest” lifestyle.
“It’s just very expensive to live here,” said Krich, “and you can’t just say, ‘We’ll move here or move there’ because that won’t make things go away. It’s expensive to live a kosher lifestyle and we need to understand that people are hurting, and not because they want the latest shoes or newest car or exotic vacation, and it’s not because they are irresponsible.”
For many in the area community, food resources are vital to keep their family fed.
“It’s definitely challenging trying to feed a family of growing children,” said one local resident. She gets paid at the end of the week, and until then money can be a bit tight. When she can pick up someone’s extra pizza or leftover prepared foods from a market, she said, it can be “helpful financially.”
Unlike the WhatsApp groups where you may know the name of the person who wants your foodstuffs as their name is tied to their user account, the Shearit HaPlate Food Pantry aims for total anonymity.
The organization takes food that is left over from a simcha, caterer or a restaurant, repackages it into takeout containers and makes them available to the community. People can then come to a private address and take what’s available.
“We have over 150 people on our list, but we don’t know how many people come on a weekly basis,” said Dalia Seltzer, the organization’s newly installed president. “I think that it definitely saves people money if they don’t have to buy groceries to make dinner five days a week.”
Also filling the food need is Tomchei Shabbos of Bergen County, which serves 180 to 230 families, including seniors, each week, and has seen increasing requests for help over the last few months.
“In the past, it would have been a varied group of people who need aid, but now we are seeing families with many kids who need our assistance because meeting the rising costs of food is just impossible for many families,” said Sara Walzman, who, along with Sara Zilberstein, runs Tomchei Shabbos.
The increase in need comes as the organization itself is dealing with higher food costs. “Our prices have gone up tremendously even though we buy directly from manufacturers and distributors, as they pass their increased costs on to us,” Walzman explained.
While some organizations start with a set amount of funding and figure out what items people will get based on the funds already allocated, Walzman said Tomchei’s model is different. Their aim is to ensure that a family will get the type of food they ordinarily would eat and enjoy.
“We come up with a game plan of what we feel a family needs for the holidays and Shabbos, in order to make it a respectful and enjoyable experience, and so they can feel at peace and like every other family in the community. That is our driving force.
“We are 100% community funded,” continued Walzman. “We are not a government-funded program and thank God we have a good position in the community, and people remember and support us.”
According to Renee Glick, one of the administrators of the West Orange/Livingston Chesed Committee, it’s easy for people to underestimate the actual need for food assistance in the community.
“You would be surprised at the amount of people we provide assistance to,” she said. “There are people, who, on a superficial level, might be doing well, but literally cannot put food on the table. It could be a neighbor or the person in the carpool line next to you.
“When people reach out to us, the need for food is often a sidebar and part of a larger problem,” Glick continued. “Maybe they are underemployed or need mortgage assistance. Food insecurity is just a piece of the puzzle, but it’s an important piece when you hear about kids not being able to bring lunch or snacks to school or a mom who can’t put food on the table.”
Krich of Project Ezrah echoed that idea. “I can’t go into a supermarket or to a simcha without seeing a client or someone who has reached out for help. It is everywhere, and we just need to keep helping anyone who needs it.”
Faygie Holt is an award-winning freelance journalist and the author of eight children’s books. Her most recent releases are “On the Move” (Achdus Club 5) and “Layla’s Vistaville Spring” (Layla’s Diaries 3). You can find her at Faygieholt.com.