Conventional wisdom exists for a reason — it makes sense.
As in, it makes sense that those in the Shore area who are suffering from food insecurity probably do a little better in the summer, when there are plenty of seasonal employment opportunities.
Conventional wisdom exists for another reason — when it doesn’t follow form, it’s a signal that there is an issue that needs attention.
That’s where Fulfill, the community food bank that serves Monmouth and Ocean counties, is now.
Food insecurity has become a year-round issue at the Shore and around the state. One that doesn’t recede in the summer — or after a pandemic, which brought attention to the issue like no other event.
The need for assistance has never been greater, Fulfill CEO Triada Stampas said — and especially since so many government programs that were established during the pandemic have ended.
“The taking away of a lot of the pandemic relief support — corresponding with food prices going up at the same time — has had enormous impact,” she said. “Last summer, for the first time, we did not see a dip in food pantry utilization, we saw it plateau. The same thing happened this summer.”
The problem is, no one knows about it. Or wants to know about it. Or wants to accept the fact that being hungry isn’t just limited to the poorest areas in the state or country.
Kelly Lankau Watts, Fulfill’s vice president of development and external affairs, put it this way.
“There certainly is some of that NIMBY sentiment,” she said. “Not in my backyard. It doesn’t happen here. I don’t want it here. And the reality is, it’s here.”
September is Hunger Action Month.
Fulfill is hoping to make it Hunger Awareness Month, too.
“It’s a month of awareness-raising to build public knowledge and awareness that food insecurity exists in every community,” Sampas said.
The numbers bear that out. Consider:
- Distribution points: Fulfill has approximately 300 points of distribution between food pantries, soup kitchens or mobile pantries — senior programs and youth programs. Utilization of these services is up 70% in the past year.
- Food delivered: Fulfill distributed more than 17 million pounds of food through the end of its fiscal year June 30. That’s 30% higher than the last pre-pandemic year of 2019, when it delivered approximately 13 million pounds.
- Food costs: Fulfill is budgeted to spend more than $1 million dollars a month ($12 million to $14 million a year) to buy food. In previous years, that would have matched Fulfill’s entire operating budget.
Needs this high have created another need: More space for Fulfill to operate.
The organization has all but outgrown its 43,000-square-foot building in Neptune, which includes 24,000 square feet of warehouse space.
The warehouse was built in 2001 — what was then a big year for Fulfill: It distributed 3 million pounds of food.
So, what can you — or your company — do?
For starters, money always works well. And we don’t say that jokingly. The fact is, Fulfill — and other food banks in the state — not only buys a lot of its food, it gets to purchase it at wholesale prices. Having a fundraiser for Fulfill (or the food pantry that serves your area) works, too.
Not that food itself isn’t wanted. Stampas said she understands that many people like to be able to see and touch what they are donating. Food drives are a tremendous help. And they can make it more personal.
And, if you really want to make it personal, Stampas invites you to volunteer at Fulfill. The organization, which has approximately 55 full- and part-time employees, can always use an extra set of hands to help.
“We have a volunteer operation that takes place five days a week, two shifts a day in our warehouse,” she said. “The sort through the donated items, do a little quality control and repack a lot of the items so that they’re easy for our pantries to handle.”
Most of all, you and your company can spread the word that the need still exists — that people are still struggling to find enough food. Young and old, especially.
“We’re no longer in a crisis-response mode,” Stampas said. “Instead, we’re in a moment where need continues to be incredibly high, but public attention has waned.
“We don’t have the kind of mile-long lines for food that happens when the lockdowns first started, so that visibility has diminished. The need has not.
“This is why I say hunger hides in plain sight. It is still there after people stop paying attention.”
Conventional wisdom will tell you that.