Moving forward toward our new normal is going to be a process not an event. In some parts of our country flattening-the-curve is beginning to pay off. As the conversation moves towards relaxing physical distancing measures we believe it's important to take thoughtful measured steps. It will likely be many months and maybe years before we're all safe from this virus.
There's good news: the first step has already begun. Because more people are cooking at home these days, our food supply chain has had to change the way they package foods. Demand for retail sized packaging has increased at a rate that initially overwhelmed farmers and manufacturers which typically packaged foods in foodservice containers for businesses like restaurants and schools. But changes are being made to accommodate this new normal.
In the interim the ability to access local foods is taking on a new face. We're working to create a network of local food pantries that have the ability to serve our most vulnerable neighbors. My friend Carole Galgano-Tonks in Brick, NJ is an exceptional example of food justice at work. Please read her account of their journey to address food insecurity in their community.
The Alliance Center for Independence (ACI), recognizes disability as a natural and beautiful part of human diversity. We are a non-profit, community-based, grassroots organization that supports and promotes independent living for people of all ages and all disabilities in Middlesex, Union, and Somerset counties in New Jersey.
ACI offers many different programs and services, but during this challenging time of COVID-19, the most important service we can provide to our constituents is food, resources and someone to talk to.
ACI is a small agency with 15 employees but we cover one of the most densely populated counties in NJ. Giving back to our community was always an important part of what we do, from planting trees in the park, coat drives, toy drives and food drives. However, we began to realize that doing a food drive twice a year was not enough to sustain the growing need for access to healthy food.
In 2015, we started a food pantry that would be available to low income disabled individuals and their families. We started with buying two utility shelves from the Home Depot and set them up in our stockroom. ACI staff went shopping and donated food to fill the shelves. We received approval from the health department and began to advertise. It was that easy… we built it and people came.
As time went on, and we began to grow, we established relationships with local businesses, schools and community members who would do food drives and keep our pantry stocked. We transformed the stock room into a kitchen and received donations of a refrigerator and stand up freezer. Truck drivers began to know us and would drop off extra cases of anything from chicken to bacon to water.
ACI consumers/volunteers took an interest and were taught the skills to run the pantry. They learned customer service, organizing, stocking shelves and checking expiration dates and took pride in being able to help our community. The pantry served between 20 and 25 families a month.
We then expanded further, the Rutgers University Master Gardener Program helped us build a small garden outside of our building where we grew tomatoes and herbs. We started a cooking program on Fridays where our volunteers/consumers learned to make easy meals such as chili, soup, smoothies and spaghetti and meatballs. A chef from a local supermarket came in and showed us how to cut up fresh fruits and veggies. We bought a charcoal grill and our volunteers organized cook-outs during the Summer months. Most recently, we submitted a request for proposal for a vocational program for people with disabilities interested in the food service field.
Right before the pandemic hit, a local bank came to learn about our services. I introduced them to Charles who works in the pantry and he explained his role and what the food pantry did. The bank called me later on that day and made a $2500 donation to the pantry.
That donation allowed us to completely stock our shelves and refrigerator just in time. When Covid-19 hit, we spent our time calling our consumers to see what we could do to help. We made 2500+ calls and learned that the biggest need was for food. In 3 weeks, we tripled the amount of people coming for healthy, perishable food.
Many people could not get out of their homes so we began delivering food and leaving it outside people’s doors while talking to them through their windows. People are feeling isolated and appreciated us checking on them. We had pizza delivered to 34 families to try and lift their spirits.
When we began running low on food, we would ask people what they needed and our staff would go shopping to try and find the items. We realized that this was no longer a nice thing that we did for the community, but it was essential.
While we had to alter our hours, the office still remains open 3 days a week for people in need of food. We do not let people inside the building, we bring the bags out to their cars. We were also able to obtain a limited amount of PPE that we have been distributing.
Where do we go from here? Your guess is as good as mine. We have learned that we need to be prepared for disasters at any given time and we cannot let our guard down. We have learned of many gaps in the system that will be addressed at a later time. We learned that we need to expand our efforts in getting healthy food to people who do not have access to it.
For now, as home delivery gets harder, and less and less people are out donating and delivering food, we will try our best to keep getting food to those who need it. Thank you to the generosity of the many people who have helped us during this time, including Kelly’s Kitchen!
Thank you ACI family! Stay safe!!