nj’s Logo

It was a typical early summer view last weekend as a group gathered under a large tent in South Jersey to celebrate.

However, this was not just any party.

This was a chance to thank the helpers who worked throughout the pandemic to ensure that New Jersey residents struggling through job losses and dwindling resources were still able to feed their families.

The Southern Food Distribution Center organized a Tea Assessment Day to highlight the work of volunteers who provide millions of pounds of food to a large part of the state year after year, despite the challenges that stand in the way.

The center provides goods for 80 food pantries, shelters and soup kitchens and operates under Rural Development Corp., which supports unsolicited rural communities in South Jersey. In addition to the center, RDC operates the Cumberland Family Shelter.

As the pandemic devastated lives, the need for help increased.

“There was a lot more food coming in and out,” said Jill N. Lombardo-Melchiore, executive director of Rural Development Corp. “Organizations had a greater need for food because they were trying to feed so many people.”

The annual amount of food delivered through their Vineland distribution center increased by milion 1.6 million between 2019 and 2020. They moved 6 4.6 million in 2020 and this year’s figures are moving in the same direction. The figures have not dropped to pre-COVID levels so far this year.

“Many of the pantries we work with have been feeding people for years and they will continue to feed people now that COVID is officially over,” Lombardo-Melchiore said. “They really got up to make sure people in their communities were fed throughout COVID and most of them are on a voluntary basis. Most of them were people leaving their homes in the middle of COVID to be made sure other people were fed. “

This dedication inspired Pantry Assessment Day, inviting volunteers and the organizations they serve to come to Vineland for an afternoon of fun, food, and friendship.

Anika Jackson, who oversees the pantry at His Image Ministers in Gouldtown, brought her young children to the event because returns are a family tradition.

They adopt 10 families at the Cumberland Family Shelter every Christmas, providing gifts and making the holiday special for those who are having a hard time.

The church launched its food pantry about six months ago and helps more than 100 families a month.

While the worst effects of the pandemic may begin to subside, the need has not occurred, Jackson said. Many are left jobless and some are now trying to keep their children fed during the summer.

In addition to a car pantry, they also provide food for the elderly.

“It makes you feel really good to be able to help someone who can’t help themselves at a time like this,” she said.

Jackson was particularly affected by the condition of an elderly woman who lost her job during the pandemic while also caring for her ailing husband at home. She had no opportunity to buy food and reached out to the pantry.

“The stories you hear from people are just mind-blowing,” Jackson said. “It’s really wonderful to see how grateful people are, especially the elderly.”

Southern Regional Food Distribution Center

Attendees at the Pantry Assessment Day event at the Regional Southern Food Distribution Center gather in front of canned goods boxes collected as part of a special canned goods machine to support communities served by food-receiving agencies through center.(Photo submitted)

The distribution center supplies programs as far south as Cape May County and north in Mercer County.

Support comes through federal and state food allocations, and funds for the purchase of goods. Moreover, they receive donations from some local food producers and produce businesses.

They store items in a large warehouse and have freezing and refrigeration areas for breaks, including fresh meats and vegetables. The goal is to get food for those who need it as soon as possible. Program coordinator Yesenia Mcwhite queues deliveries with incoming date cellars to get food to ensure everything stays fresh.

“Yesenia is absolutely incredible in this,” Lombardo-Melchiore said. “She knows when her products are coming in and she reserves things to come on certain days so they literally hit the warehouse and they’re gone within days.”

Diane Chester, who oversees the cellar operation at Eggerts First Baptist Church in Lawrenceville, Mercer County, learned about the food distribution center from a friend who owns a church in Trenton.

Volunteers make a 90-minute trip to the center once a month to gather food.

“They are very good people,” Chester told the food center staff, describing how she is able to easily adjust reception requirements based on current supplies in the church cellar, ensuring nothing goes wrong.

At the height of the pandemic, this church provided food for about 75 families, including a family of five who lost their father to COVID-19.

In addition to food, they provide families with information about available resources and strive to help them stay positive.

“We try to keep them encouraged and let them know that we are here to help them if they need it,” Chester said.

Melvin Braxton Sr., pastor at Bethel Holy Temple in Buena Vista Township, said his church closet started during the pandemic.

“People ‘s needs were always there, but it seemed like the pandemic was adding pressure. It intensified the war, “he said, noting that they currently help up to 50 families and make deliveries for those without transportation. “For many of them, it has become like a lifeline.”

The distribution center helped make this possible.

“Jill and her organization were very helpful and a big part of why we are able to have a successful, functioning pantry,” Braxton said. “It makes it easier for us to be able to have an impact on people’s lives.”

COVID and winter weather created issues that bring deliveries to the center.

“Perhaps one of the biggest challenges over the last six months or so has been the availability of food coming in,” Lombardo-Melchiore said. “Some of the organizations that sent us food through the New Jersey Department of Agriculture were not functioning as pre-KOVID. At one point during the winter with storms in the Midwest, the truck industry was trying to get food from one end of the country to the other. “

Eventually, everything arrived, she said, praising NJDA for keeping the food running smoothly.

Orlando Sotomayor, a trustee at Seventh-day Adventist Church on West Chestnut Avenue in Vineland, saw the need for help increase during the pandemic, when more than 700 people sought help. Recently, they have helped about 200 families, which he attributes more to people who get jobs or receive government benefits.

He is grateful for the support of the distribution center, especially during the height of the pandemic. When he would be supplied with less due to increased demand, the center was there to meet the need, he said. “They are beautiful people,” he said. “Whenever I need something, I just talk to them.”

Southern Regional Food Distribution Center

Warehouses at the Southern Vineland Regional Food Distribution Center do not stay long, as the need for food support remains high throughout New Jersey.(Matt Gray | For NJ.com)

Cheron Rosado, who runs the cellar program at the Lord Chestnut Assembly in Vineland, has also seen a recent drop in demand but said it has not fallen to pre-pandemic levels.

They served 340 families last November and assisted about 110 families in their final distribution in June.

“Before the pandemic, our numbers looked more like 50 to 60 families at once,” she said.

Rosado praised the center for its efficient and agile operation, describing how it could receive a call with an offer of refrigerated items that the center could not store. Her team will run to the center to pick up and store extra merchandise for their next delivery event, ensuring nothing goes to waste.

Overall, the distribution center is not seeing a drop in demand.

While the pandemic could end, so many special measures have been put in place to help those struggling, including the rent eviction moratorium and temporary withdrawal of utility bill payments.

“None of us know what lies ahead from the point of view of food insecurity and also from the point of view of the homeless,” Lombardo-Melchiore said. “We do not know what that need will look like.”

One operation that sees no reduction in aid requests is the Heavenly Hands church-based pantry, affiliated with the Iglesia Pentecostal Emanuel in Wildwood. They provide food in that community, as well as Millville and Bridgeton in Cumberland County.

Maria Anglero was out in Millville one last afternoon delivering food to grateful recipients and the business was fast.

“We love what we do,” she said. “We like to put that smile on someone’s face.”

Anglero runs the pantry with her husband, Javier Alicea, and the pastor of the church and his wife, Elias and Debbie Garcia.

They help 6,000 to 7,000 families a month, she said.

“You will be very surprised by the number of people who really need it in this difficult time,” she said. “Sometimes people think that just because one person works, they have it all. Some people are actually hungry even if they work because they do not have enough to put food on their table and feed their children. ”

She praised the distribution center staff for ensuring the need was met.

“They are excellent,” Anglero said. “Jill has done great things there. Yesenia, she is wonderful. It just goes beyond and beyond. “What he does, he does from the heart.”

While operating during the pandemic was challenging, it did not stop the Anglero team from doing what they want.

“If people are not afraid to go out and ask for help, why should I be afraid to give it to them?” she said.

Lombardo-Melchiore admires that dedication.

“It’s really a nice thing … to see the amount of compassion and the amount of energy that goes into feeding people in the community through the food banks and all the distribution points we have and how it makes it so much easier. to work with people because everyone is like mind. “

Mcwhite thinks work is a natural fit.

“I’ll have to say that the best thing about this job for me is that I know one person will sleep less hungry,” she said. “Feeding people is something that has always been in my heart and finding a job doing something I love and getting paid for it just makes it all better.”

Returning to the day of the assessment, attendees are not leaving empty-handed. Each organization was surprised by an unexpected additional donation of canned goods collected during a centrifugal drive. Area residents contributed to this effort and guests left with boxes of food for their communities.

Lombardo-Melchiore wants these volunteers to know they are valued.

“This is a day for someone to take care of them,” Lombardo-Melchiore said. “This is a day of us saying thank you for everything you do in the community.”

Southern Regional Food Distribution Center

The Southern Vineland Regional Food Distribution Center is operated by Rural Development Corp.(Matt Gray | For NJ.com)

Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today at NJ.com.

Matt Gray can be reached at mgray@njadvancemedia.com.