The value of food pantries got lost in the details

The value of food pantries got lost in the details

We are writing in response to NJJN’s article “Banking on Food: Hungry for paid staff, the pros and cons of volunteers” (March 16). While the article discusses issues experienced by volunteers and agencies involved in providing food for those in need, we are compelled to address statements made in the article concerning the budget for the food pantry at Jewish Family Service of Central NJ (JFSCNJ) that we believe are erroneous, and provide misleading or incomplete information about the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, of which we are a grateful beneficiary.

First, in stating that the “food pantry in Elizabeth has just one full-time employee and an operating budget of $80,000,” NJJN neglected to mention that $80,000 is 100 percent devoted to purchasing food for those in need. The alleged “full-time salary” is a modest and conservative estimation of salaried employees at JFSCNJ who provide critical and necessary assistance in both the administration and implementation of the nonprofit function which enables the purchased and collected food to be quickly and efficiently distributed to those most in need. For example, professional  salaries cover case management for clients to receive help in accessing other entitlements; career counseling; coordinating year-round volunteer efforts; organizing food collections from camps, religious organizations, Ys and JCCs, bar/bat mitzvah projects, divisions of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, and others; writing grants to private foundations, government and corporate entities, and supermarket chains that provide generous funding; plus managing direct-mail campaigns, email blasts, and donor solicitations. Put plainly, the “full-time salary” includes many essential functions without which the mission of feeding the hungry could not be fulfilled to the peril of those in need.

In addition, the article makes what we perceive as insulting comments and insinuations about the integrity of the various food banks in New Jersey, writing that in moving to a professionally staffed model, food pantries “risk creating the perception that contributions are filling up the pockets of employees, rather than the stomachs of hungry community members.” As the president and executive director at JFSCNJ, this statement is not only insensitive to the hard- working and multi-talented non-profit professionals who do not earn the higher salaries of corporate employees, it ignores employees who possess a multitude of skills of those expected to work in a not-for-profit setting that is always understaffed and often underfunded. Indeed, we have seen firsthand many of these professionals who could likely earn more in private industry go above and beyond by giving of their own time — without any compensation — to ensure that as many of those in need be served. This altruism is particularly important in today’s political climate where budgets, staffing, and funding for food banks and other services are under threat of cuts or defunding, and without which will inevitably lead to a worsening of the current hunger crisis.

To avoid discouraging those like the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, which for decades has gone above and beyond to make sure that we receive kosher food products at a reduced rate, including fresh produce, we must express our gratitude and appreciation for all they have done to assist JFSCNJ in providing food and support to the hungry in our community. Further, the professional and lay leadership of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ also deserve thanks for having done an outstanding job of coordinating volunteers for supermarket sweeps and other events that account for  increasing the amount of food we are able to give out. In addition, our hungry clients greatly benefit from the Challah Bake, held at the Community Food Bank and other community facilities, and federation regularly coordinates volunteers who spend their time in our office making salads for our clients and Meals on Wheels recipients.

In light of the above, we hope that a more accurate and complete picture is provided to the public of the needs and difficulties faced by agencies and volunteers engaged in providing food to those less fortunate in our community. What should stand out, however, is that JFSCNJ and those upon whom it relies for funding and support approach the growing needs of the hungry with their roots firmly planted in the principle of tikkun olam.

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