Demand for emergency food climbs as prices jump, COVID-19 surges again

JON HURDLE, CONTRIBUTING WRITER | DECEMBER 24, 2021

NJ Spotlight News

Matthew Veltz, left, helps a client load her shopping bag at a food distribution event in Newark on Dec. 22.

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On a windswept street in Newark’s West Ward, Robert Clark waited patiently outside a food pantry to fill his shopping cart with free groceries that he hoped would enable him and his family to feed themselves over the Christmas holiday.

Clark, 60, lost his job as a carpenter when the pandemic hit in March 2020 and said he has had brief spells of work since then but no steady employment for the past seven months.

“Jobs are plentiful but a lot of people don’t want to hire,” he said. “You got to show your COVID shot. Here in Jersey, it’s not like it used to be.”

Demand for food assistance skyrocketed when the pandemic hit almost two years ago, and shows no sign of letting up, said Tanya Veltz, president of the nonprofit that runs the pantry, Tree House Cares. She said it’s a combination of factors, from a new surge in COVID-19 cases, still-pervasive unemployment and, most recently, fast-rising food prices.

A dire situation for many

“We have a lot of people right now because of COVID who are suffering from job losses,” Veltz said. ”Some of the sole supporters of their families have passed away from COVID.”

Given this dire situation, the pantry doesn’t turn anyone away, she said: “We have undocumented people who before needed an ID and credentials to receive food. We don’t ask for that — anybody can come.”

Clark spent about an hour standing in line along with some 250 others earlier this week, all masked for COVID-19 and bundled against the cold, waiting their turn to collect turkeys, bread, oranges, celery, bags of onions and other foods.

One by one, residents were let into a parking lot where foods were laid out on folding tables staffed by a handful of volunteers who helped load up carts, boxes, shopping bags, garbage bags and in one case a wheeled dolly that allowed residents to carry the goods home. People were allowed to take as much as they could carry, and some left with overflowing shopping carts.

Veltz said she distributes food three days a week outside the nonprofit’s building on Sanford Street, and the events always draw 200 to 300 people. She also provides cooked meals, and demand for those has jumped from about 90 per day before the pandemic to about 1,200 now, she said.

‘We get BMWs, Mercedes. I don’t ask’

Demand for groceries has increased by about 90% since the start of the pandemic, she said. About half of her clients are Black , 20% are Latinx, and many others are from Newark’s Haitian community. Clients come from all walks, including those from middle- and even upper-income families who lost their jobs and now rely on food assistance.

“We get people who just bought homes and cars and lost their jobs,” said Veltz, who runs the nonprofit with her husband, Matthew. “We get BMWs, Mercedes. I don’t ask.”

Thanks to supplies from the Community FoodBank of New Jersey and other donors, there’s always enough food to go around, Veltz said.

Statewide, demand for emergency food surged when people lost their jobs in the pandemic lockdown, and it remains high even though most businesses have reopened, and the official unemployment rate — 6.6% in November — is now well below its pandemic peak of around 15%.

Leaders of New Jersey’s food banks continue to predict demand for food assistance will remain high for months or even years after the pandemic recedes as people struggle to dig out from personal debt accumulated when they were unable to work.

Now, the need is fueled by higher food prices and overextended personal budgets, forcing some to turn to food pantries for help.

Rising food prices

“I just need extra food in the house. It’s too expensive to buy,” said Joseph Clark (no relation), 65, a retired construction worker, as he stood in the Newark line. He said he recently paid about $6 for five pieces of sausage, about twice the price of a few months ago.

Clark comes to the pantry about three times a week and said he isn’t entirely dependent on its food but just uses it as an “add-on.” Asked what he would do if the pantry wasn’t here, he said he would try to find another in the area.

Across the state, rising food prices are increasing the burden on the food-assistance network, said Nicole Williams, a spokeswoman for the Hillside-based Community FoodBank of New Jersey, the state’s largest, and the biggest source of food for Tree House Cares.

“Right now, elevated demand has a lot to do with rising food prices and cost of living, and many families are still struggling with the effects of pandemic,” she said.

Nationally, the overall price of food from grocery stores and supermarkets was 6.4% higher in November than a year earlier, almost twice the rate seen for all of 2020, according to federal government data.

Very busy

At the Food Bank of South Jersey, which distributes to pantries and soup kitchens in four counties, the November and December holiday season has been very busy, said Greg Loder, a spokesman. While the bank was prepared for a regular seasonal increase in demand, it looks like December will exceed even those projections, he said.

The organization served about 460 families at distribution events in Westhampton and Lindenwold in mid-December. It is expecting a further increase in demand as some pandemic support programs — such as the state’s ban on evictions for low-income residents — end in January, and the omicron variant sparks another surge in COVID-19 infections.

“Some of our agency partners are dealing with heightened COVID cases and adjusting to that,” Loder said.

At the Newark event, Evelyn McDaniels, a volunteer, said the food line has been lengthened by the price of food in the shops. “I think it’s because food prices are high and people can’t afford to buy food. That’s why the line is so long,” she said.

McDaniels, who said she has been working in the community for 47 years, takes the donated food and distributes it to people who can’t attend the distribution events because of their work commitments.

After his long wait in the cold, Robert Clark pushed a shopping cart filled with chicken, turkey, fruit, potatoes, onions and other vegetables out of the parking lot, and began to head off to his nearby home.

He estimated it was enough food to last two to three weeks, “maybe a month” for himself, his wife and their five-year-old son. He said it’s important to “be conservative and notice what I’m eating. Don’t be greedy.”

But he at least gathered enough food to help the family celebrate Christmas. “I’m going to have to or else it won’t seem like a holiday,” he said.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-12-24 03:21:12 -0800