With three young children in tow, including one seven-month old in a harness, she examined a box of corn flakes and then moved on to get some crackers, watercress and green beans.
Just another family trip to the grocery store? Hardly.
This single mother is in her 30’s and is among the millions of people across the country who are food insecure. Whatever income and assistance she gets is not enough for her to feed herself and her family.
“This place is helping to keep me and my children fed and healthy because I can’t afford to on my own,” she said, asking that her name stay private. “I am here every week. I’m not sure what I would do without it. It is a blessing.”
Her destination is the Interfaith Food Pantry of the Oranges (IFPO) – a Good People Fund grantee – housed three Wednesday mornings each month at the Church of the Epiphany and Christ Church in Orange, NJ.
The organization supplies a wide array of food and other items, like toiletries, that make a huge difference in the lives of hundreds of individuals and families in Orange and East Orange, outside of New York City.
From its beginnings about 25 years ago, when it served about 10 clients per week, IFPO has grown tremendously and now boasts staggering numbers, reflecting the need and the organization’s ability to meet it with community partnerships and the Community FoodBank of New Jersey.
In 2018 alone, IFPO’s food and services reached an estimated 18,000 adults, 2,200 seniors and 15,500 children, and about 300 people visit each week.
“There is wealth in this area, but just a mile up the road are people in real need,” said Andy Soloway of nearby Maplewood, one of about 500 volunteers for the organization. “That’s why we are here.”
This is so much more than a food-giveaway program, though, and one merely needs to walk through it one day to realize that IFPO has grabbed the best elements of marketplace, community center, social hall and farmer’s market, tied it all up with proven practices of customer service, and created one big, bustling and boisterous venue for giving and receiving good.
Living here is an intense respect for the dignity of those who come. They walk from table to table, each piled high with various foodstuffs – grains here, proteins there, vegetables too – so they can actively examine and choose products while engaging with volunteers who can go on about everything from preparation and recipes, to nutritional value and storage.
“We are a community of volunteers focused and committed to helping our neighbors in need with as much grace as we can possibly provide,” said Jodi Cooperman, a volunteer pantry manager and IFPO Treasurer.
“By greeting them, welcoming them by name, escorting and helping them, we are making their experience as good as it can be, making them as individuals feel valued and respected, and building a community of caring and dignity. And they, in turn, are that much more grateful and appreciative. It’s just so important.”
And the concept of “client choice” – by which clients choose only the products they like and need and that fit their lifestyles and health profiles – cuts down on food waste, which may occur in more traditional programs that distribute pre-packaged bags of groceries.
Congregating around one table on a recent Wednesday, clients were choosing an allotment of toiletry products, ranging from body gels and shampoos, to mouthwashes and deodorants. This particular station, which exists due to a grant from The Good People Fund, is just as critical as the ones devoted to food, Cooperman noted.
“We all feel more dignity and self-worth when we feel clean,” she said, noting that federal food assistance programs such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) don’t cover the cost of toiletries. “These are essentials. Why should people have to choose between food and toothpaste? We don’t want them to have to.”
IFPO is a collaborative effort of three synagogues and one church in the area. Volunteers are also drawn from other faith communities, as well as schools and civic groups, underscoring the power of the many to uplift those who may be struggling.
One Wednesday morning, a group of volunteer adults with special needs – from ECLC (Education, Careers and Lifelong Community), based in Chatham – were helping IFPO clients at the toiletries station underwritten by GPF.
In the process of doing good work and helping others with needs, these volunteers were learning real life skills themselves, part of a cycle of benevolence and nourishment that touches everyone associated with IFPO.
“I don’t count the hours or the days,” said one. “I come for the joy.”
By H. Glenn Rosenkrantz, for The Good People Fund