As Newark food pantry faces closure, volunteers fear they won't be able to help needy

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on October 20, 2015

Tanya Goodwin, left, is a volunteer at the food pantry of St. Barnabas Church. She helps Barry Simpson, right, Newark collect a bag of food. The pantry is closing Dec. 31.

 

Her right foot had swelled to the size of an eggplant, with bruising the same shade. 

But Louise Meggett can handle limping around – the result of a heavy table falling on her foot last month. What she can't deal with is the thought of not being able to operate the food pantry at the parish hall of her former church in Newark.

 "Even though my health is  important, I want to make sure the people have something to eat,'' Meggett says.

So there she was on Tuesday, dedicated as always, in the parish hall of St. Barnabas Church. People began to line up at 10 a.m., some with shopping carts, as she opened the gate.

They are senior citizens, getting by on Social Security and disability checks, and the working poor, who don't earn enough to pay bills and buy food. They come every Tuesday and, by the end of the month, the pantry has fed 600 to 700 people with food supplied by the Community Food Bank of New Jersey in Hillside.

Meggett's foot will eventually heal, but the health of the food pantry is not in good shape. It's closing at the end of December, much to the disappointment of the needy and the volunteers who have been serving them for 27 years.

"This is going to hurt," says Barry Simpson, a Newark resident who receives disability and regularly visits the pantry. " I look forward to places like this."

The pantry, located on Market Street, is owned by the Episcopal Diocese of Newark. Many of the volunteers were longtime members of the church, which was closed three years ago.

The diocese says the church, which has a history of fighting for social justice, didn't have enough members and revenue to remain open.

The former church members still cringe at that explanation, but the diocese allowed them to stay as long as they were willing to keep the pantry a food ministry.

With the pantry open, members could continue to help  people and stay connected to a church that some of them joined as children.

Meggett and company took that as a promise from Diocese Canon Gregory Jacobs, and now they think he's going back on his word.

Here's the deal. The parish hall and the church are up for sale, which members figured out when a"for sale" sign popped up on the property. There's a difference of opinion as to when the sign appeared and that's important to the members.

They are there every week and say the sign was put up in September, which gives them little time to prepare to leave. They received an email from Jacobs on Sept. 11 that their last day was Nov. 1.

Nina Nicholson, director communications for the diocese, says the sign was up this past spring and that members knew the property would be sold one day.

"They have been encouraged to be in conversation with neighboring food pantries about the possibility of combining services at another location,'' Nicholson says.

After members complained about the Nov. 1 deadline, the diocese pushed the closing back to Dec. 31. 

The relationship with the diocese, as you can see, hasn't been great.  There's nothing the members can do now, except serve.  And even though there are other food pantries in the area, the people who utilize this one to stretch their food budget have an affinity for it.

Two women in wheelchairs come, even though the pantry is not handicapped accessible. Since they cannot get inside, volunteers bring the food to them, placing it in their laps.

"See how nice they are to you here,'' says A. Saab. " I hate to see them leave. They care about you here.''

No one is allowed to cut the line. Sometimes, there are as many as 50 people with shopping bags or carts. Once inside, they show their identification and agency referral to get the food that has to be accounted for by the pantry.

Roslyn Richardson, of Newark, was there last week, picking up a box of food – grateful for the pantry foods, but sad that it is closing.

"This may not take you through the month, but at least it will take you through a couple of weeks,'' Richardson says.

Every staple helps, says another woman, who would only identify herself as C. Culley. The Newark woman says she never thought she'd be in this situation. She's a grandmother on disability, raising two grandchildren after their mother died four years ago.

"I have to come here,'' she says. "My check is not enough.''

The church members will miss  the work and may try to start a pantry somewhere else."We'll do the best we can to serve the people,'' says Delano Cooper. "If we don't have a place, then we'll just let it go."

But that's hard for them to do.  As long as the people are in need, Meggett says she will still try to bring them food, especially the senior citizens who live across the street.

She'll do anything to feed her flock -- even if  she has to limp around to do it.

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