Gregory Cares Food Drive Collects Two Tons of Food for West Orange Food Pantry
Monday, December 19, 2011 • 5:40am
WEST ORANGE, NJ - Local families lifted the holiday spirits of the West Orange Food Pantry on Sunday by donating two tons of non-perishable items during the Gregory Cares food drive.
Ethan Stambler, a resident of Helen Avenue, organized the food drive and recruited friends and family to help raise awareness and to collect the food.
“I started this in the beginning of December,” said Stambler. “I’d heard that pantries were under strain, especially given the economic climate and that a lot more people have been using them. The thing that caught my attention was that for the first time in a long time I heard that some food pantries were running out of food.”
Stambler started distributing flyers to his neighbors and friends about two weeks ago in the hopes of gathering a few boxes of food to donate. The response was overwhelming and volunteers poured in to help organize and execute the drive, which saw more than a hundred families donate food. The results stunned Cynthia Cumming, the food pantry’s administrator.
“We are completely floored,” she said Sunday afternoon after the food was donated. “This is a record for a local food drive.”
Cumming added, “The community of West Orange is probably one of the nicest, most compassionate, giving communities that anybody could ever hope to live in.”
The pantry she runs needs that generosity. The number of families using the services there, including the thrift store and soup kitchen, has doubled in the last two years as local residents have run out of unemployment benefits.
“Last month we had 203 families come for food,” says Cumming. “That equated to 622 people and 50 percent of those are children.”
One local resident said he was grateful for the pantry's services. Jose is a 42-year-old construction worker and has been out of work for years following the economic collapse. He chose not to give his last name but said that without the food pantry he would quickly run out of food.
“It gives some peace of mind knowing that you’re going to eat,” he says. “I’m really grateful. I really appreciate the people who support the food bank.”
Jose says that life has been hard for him over the last few years but that discovering the food pantry a year ago helped ease his burden. “I’m still alive. As long as I have a place to stay I’m ok.”
Families like the one Jose lives with receive food once a month based on a par sheet that allots food based on family size and the pantry’s resources. Cumming said that even though the amounts are limited, that she and Alice Hoffman, who founded the pantry and is now its coordinator, insist on giving the families some choice as to what they eat.
“The West Orange Food Pantry is one of the only food banks to offer food choices to its families,” Cumming said. “Most food banks pre-bag their food then distribute it to the families based on size (of the family).” The families who visit the West Orange Food Pantry can choose which canned vegetables they want, for example.
Cumming added, “We try to make this an experience for that them that gives them a sense of hope and empowerment.”
The food drive, which Stambler organized under the banner of Gregory Cares because it was based in the Gregory Avenue neighborhood, started in part because of his past experience donating food to other pantries. A few years ago at a family Chanukah party, he and his relatives brought food items to donate to a local food pantry.
“We each brought food to donate,” said Stambler, “and I just thought if we can get this much food from just four families what could we do with the whole block or the whole neighborhood?”
To find out, Stambler printed up nearly 800 bright orange flyers and had his friends distribute them around West Orange.
“I just thought it would be an easy and good way for everyone in the neighborhood to get together and do something to help out,” he said, “I first put a notification on a Yahoo group for the neighborhood and that’s how I got some volunteers to help distribute flyers.”
Those flyers prompted nearly a hundred local families to leave food on their doorsteps for the volunteers to collect.
“I’ve had a lot of neighbors I never knew helping out,” said Stambler, who admits he didn’t even know there was a West Orange Food Pantry when he got the idea for the drive.
Anonymity is not good for a Food Pantry and it’s something Cumming has been combating through blogging and other publicity efforts.
“For all the people that live in town a lot of people don’t know that we’re here still,” she said. But she is quick to add that West Orange residents are some of the most generous she’s ever seen. Still, the pantry needs more help between holidays.
During a tour of the pantry, housed in the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church at 315 Main St., Cumming points to the shelves packed with food. “This is not what it normally looks like," she said. "For all of the food we have in here it will all be gone by January.”
As much as food donations help her further the cause, Cumming encourages cash donations as well. “As members of the Community Food Bank of New Jersey I can purchase ten dollars of food for every dollar that’s donated.” That means that cash donations go a long way.
“We are averaging 500 people a month right now,” she said. “If on a good day we have 50 people come in, that can represent one to 10 people per person who comes in. It’s a business now; it isn’t just a family thing anymore because it’s doubled in two years.”
She may have more assistance on the way if Stambler can help it. “I’d hope to repeat (the food drive), he said Sunday during food pickups. “I would like to do it at least annually but other people have suggested we do it more often.”
Stambler has three children, who along with his wife, Dina, helped him distribute the flyers and who worked with him on Sunday to collect the food. “I thought it would be something easy for the kids to help with and a good lesson for them about giving back.”