Week 1: A Visit to the Morris County Interfaith Food Pantry

Martha (not her real name) has been coming to the food pantry for the last year. She’d turned 75 and making ends meet on a fixed income has become especially hard since her husband passed away a few years ago. She receives social security and a small pension, but the basics of life in Morris County (mortgage, electric, taxes, food, etc.) are expensive, as is the fee for her monthly medication, so it is really difficult for her to make ends meet…

Martha’s son and his family live a few hours away. They work hard and are raising three small children. She does not want to move from the home she’s lived in for over 35 years. She also does not want to be a burden to her family. She heard about the Morris County Interfaith Food Pantry (MCIFP) through her church and came in to fill out an application.

The federal government sets poverty guidelines of $24,600 for a family of four and $12,060 for a single person household. You must fall below these numbers to be eligible for certain government-funded programs. For New Jersey residents those numbers are too low to help the 1.1 million people who are food insecure (meaning they cannot afford basic food but earn more than the federal poverty guidelines). The MCIFP is structured to help support these working poor. Being privately-run and funded, the MCIFP can set their own guidelines for eligibility. They use a calculation called ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained and Employed) which compares existing life-basic bills such as rent/mortgage, electricity, etc. to the total income of the individual/family to determine eligibility.

Martha, like every other client, is assigned a day and time to visit each month. The MCIFP is a supplemental food pantry which means it’s not designed to give daily or weekly food support. Clients come once a month to supplement their food sources. For Martha, it’s easiest to come on an evening so she can catch a ride with a friend. The pantry has lots of flexible time slots to accommodate their clients, many of which have full time jobs.

When Martha arrives she checks in at the front desk and proceeds to the waiting room. Sometimes the in-house chef has made a special dish with ingredients from the pantry that the clients can taste and learn how to make. Tonight the chef has prepared gnocchi in a basil pesto sauce. The pantry received an extensive donation of gnocchi from a local supermarket and the chef has been growing basil in the garden on the food pantry’s property so there is plenty of both for the clients to take home and prepare.

Sometimes Martha gets to the pantry early enough to see families with young children working in the garden, learning how to plant and grow a variety of vegetables. There are often activities for the children and their parents – arts and crafts and lessons on nutrition and healthy eating.

Once Martha has watched the chef prepare the meal and has had a taste of the dish, it’s her turn to shop. She is assigned a personal shopper – a volunteer who helps Martha make her way around the aisles of the pantry. The MCIFP is a client-choice pantry so guests are able to pick items from the shelves like a regular supermarket. The personal shopper offers guidance on choices, which differ each visit depending on both the availability of donated foods and the size of the client’s family.

Tonight Martha, as a single-person household, can pick up to 6 cans of soup, 2 choices of crackers/cookies, 4 choices of fruit (including fresh), 3 choices of meats, eggs, milk, etc. The list goes on and on as the client winds their way through the aisles with their shopping cart. Clients that fall below the federal poverty guidelines also get to choose from special USDA-sponsored food choices. Martha brings her shopping bags each visit. The MCIFP encourages this and rewards clients with special choices of extra items as a thank you for recycling.

Martha has become friends with the volunteers and the other clients since she comes the same day and time each month. Tonight, there’s a liaison from Morristown Hospital on hand to check blood pressure. Sometimes there are flu shots or check ups. And the MCIFP staff can help the clients connect with other services if they need them such as dental assistance, shelters and more.

Once Martha has made her way through the pantry store, her personal shopper weighs the cart. The pantry has to report back on what and how much food they give clients each day. On average, the MCIFP gives out 1.7 tons of food a day. Overall they serve approximately 4,000 families and 9,000 individuals in Morris County. Martha’s cart weighs in at over 90 pounds of food!

Martha’s eligibility will be reexamined each year to ensure she still qualifies for the MCIFP’s services. For now, she is thankful to have access to this extra food to help get her through the month, and grateful for the friendships of the staff and other clients. And I was grateful to meet Martha, help her shop and to get to know about the food pantry!

There’s lots more to learn about the MCIFP’s services and programs. Interested in finding out? Check out their page here: http://mcifp.org/#

To learn more about food insecurity in New Jersey, including your specific county, check out: https://tabletotable.org/feeding-nj/

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