Food pantry leaders step up health quotient

Food pantry leaders step up health quotient

Feeding the hungry is a challenge that is only growing larger, and Elie Bodner and Susan Klapper have made their own task all the more difficult. As the professional and lay organizers, respectively, of the food pantry run by Jewish Family Service of Central New Jersey, they have committed themselves to making the food not only kosher but as nutritious as possible.

The JFS pantry is one of two kosher pantries in the Greater MetroWest area (the other is based at Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange). It supplies a monthly food package to 115 families, with a waiting list Bodner said he hopes to whittle down. Another 50 or so families come for emergency assistance, allowed no more than three times a year.

Shifting to healthier contents means making changes their clients find acceptable — and, as Bodner pointed out, “people tend to like the food they’re accustomed to.” Over the past year, they have cut out a lot of processed items and switched to whole wheat pasta and cereal and, with help from a new contributor, to fresh whole wheat bread. The canned fruit they are using is unsweetened, and fresh produce is used as often as possible.

At JFS, Bodner has multiple roles, including food pantry and volunteer coordinator. He is also youth director of the Jewish Educational Center’s Elmora Synagogue in Elizabeth. For the past two years, he has linked those roles by bringing JEC student volunteers to work in the vegetable garden established last year on the front and side lawns outside the JFS headquarters on Westfield Avenue.

This past summer and fall, the garden yielded over 600 pounds of fresh produce that was added to the monthly food packages and to the agency’s Kosher Meals-on-Wheels (prepared for JFS by the YM-YWHA of Union County).

In recognition for these roles, Bodner was recently chosen as the first recipient of the newly established Eli Kleinman Distinguished Service Fellowship for Jewish Communal Professional Leadership. The awards, to be presented to 15 candidates in all, provide $5,000 fellowships for those working toward master’s degrees in social work. Bodner is in his first year at Touro College Graduate School of Social Work.

Presenting the award to him at Super Sunday on the Wilf campus in Scotch Plains on Dec. 8, Max Kleinman, son of the late Eli Kleinman and executive vice president/CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, described Bodner as “one of the talented individuals working at our agencies.”

Bodner, who is married and has three young sons, said trying to make the food pantry supplies more healthy has been “an eye-opening experience, seeing who our clientele is, and how much they need. Some of them are so appreciative. Everyone goes through hard times at some point; the food pantry can’t solve all their struggles, but at least it helps them look after their food needs.”

Klapper, who lives in Scotch Plains, got involved initially working on JFS’s annual fund-raiser art show, together with marketing director Heidi Pekarsky. “I wanted to get more involved with something related to food since I enjoy cooking,” Klapper said. “So I thought the pantry was a great area to focus my volunteer time.”

Now she handles all the food shopping for the pantry — most of it from ShopRite in Elizabeth — and she picks up kosher supplies, when available, from the Community Food Bank of NJ in Hillside. She also delivers food to home-bound clients.

“I try not to buy a lot of the sugary cereals,” Klapper said. “With rice, I try to buy only brown, and we’re distributing much less processed food.”

The shift to healthier items also means encouraging JFS supporters — those who donate food year-round or at special events like Super Sunday — to make those healthy choices, too. Klapper said, “We don’t turn away any foods from the donations we get from the public, but we try to spend our money to assist the clients in having a healthier diet with the basic necessities we’re giving them.”

Super Sunday donations added up to 30 bags of food, gratefully received by Bodner, Klapper, and their young volunteer helpers, including 17-year-old Samuel Kozlov and Klapper’s 12-year-old son Josh.

“Ideally,” Bodner said, “we want our donors to think in terms of providing what you’d like to eat yourself, like the mother who goes shopping with her kids and has them pick up two or three extra items of what she’s getting for their family. That way the children also get used to the idea that those who need help aren’t that different than them.”

JFS executive director Tom Beck, a self-described “health nut,” has been encouraging of the change. “He is also very strict about the quality,” Bodner said. “We can’t give out anything with an expired date on it or damaged packaging. He wants our clients to feel absolutely comfortable that what they’re receiving is really good.”

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