Cars backed up from Bruriah High School in Elizabeth to the traffic light on North Avenue by 7:30 a.m., and they continued to arrive in a steady stream for nearly four hours. They were there on the morning of June 17 for the second installment of a weekly summer program distributing kosher food.
“We really have broken down that stigma that getting free food is only for poor families,” said Yael Bleicher of Elizabeth, a volunteer coordinator for the program, which will run through the summer.
Day school professionals saw a growing need for support during the pandemic. “It was obvious that there are families who are more and more food insecure as the weeks go on,” said Rebecca Hindin, director of the Greater MetroWest New Jersey Day School Initiative of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. Hindin recently coordinated the distribution of emergency tuition grants for day school families.
She wasn’t the only one who noticed the effects of economic hardship. Steve Karp, executive director of the Jewish Educational Center (JEC) in Elizabeth, told NJJN, “There are so many families out there where parents lost their income or were furloughed” because of the shutdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Bruriah is JEC’s high school for girls.
Meanwhile, Bleicher, a dietician whose husband is the rabbi of the Elmora Hills Minyan in Elizabeth, knew of the need in her own community and had heard about kosher food distribution in Philadelphia organized through the Orthodox Union’s local day school and yeshiva advocacy arm there, Teach PA. Bleicher learned that the Orthodox Union’s New Jersey arm, Teach NJ, had already launched three food distribution sites in New Jersey: in Teaneck, Bergenfield, and Cherry Hill.
So federation, JEC, and Teach NJ joined forces to navigate the legal and legislative hurdles, organize the Union County site, and publicize the program. The first weekly delivery, which provided 853 meals for 324 families, took place June 10. By week two they were up to 1,002 meals.
The distribution is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program, which is available to families with children ages 18 and under. Its goal is to provide nutritionally balanced, free meals and snacks to children and teens in low-income areas when they’re not in school to receive their subsidized meals. But because of the far-reaching effects of Covid-19, the income eligibility requirement was dropped this summer, enabling all children and teens to qualify.
Although the pickup at Bruriah is held just once a week in order to maintain safety during the pandemic, it provides breakfast and lunch for each child in a family for an entire week. Advance signup is required.
As each car rolled up to the high school, volunteers checked off the family’s name and sent them into the parking lot, where a team on the ground from David Levy Catering Company placed the boxes into the car. The food is being provided by Joel Tessler of Gelbstein’s Bakery in Lakewood.
The cardboard boxes were packed with a combination of fresh, frozen, and prepared foods such as milk, blintzes, pizza bagels, yogurt, hummus, bologna, meatballs, hearts of palm, bagged French fries, bread products, juice, tomatoes, mangos, cantaloupe, rugelach, and cookies. Amounts varied depending on the number of children in each family.
Because there’s no proof of income required, organizers have encouraged those who are wavering to sign up so as to normalize the acceptance of donated food.
“Now everyone can benefit from it, which makes the people who really need it come,” said Bleicher.
Recipients so far have driven from Hillside, Linden, Elizabeth, Livingston, West Orange, Randolph, Basking Ridge, South Orange, Maplewood, Springfield, and other towns.
One recipient from Springfield who has three children at JEC said that initially she was uncertain about signing up, but was encouraged when told all families qualify.
“It’s the first time we’ve been on the receiving end. Normally, we’re on the other end,” said the woman, who requested that NJJN not use her name. “But it’s super helpful to pick up lunch for your kids.” An added benefit, she said: “The stuff they’re giving out is really kid-friendly and takes the stress out of what to feed your kids.”
Katie Katz, executive director of Teach NJ, which took the lead navigating the bureaucracy and legal hurdles, acknowledged the help of Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Dist. 36), who visited the site with other officials on June 17.
“Helping the Jewish community and helping all communities is why we are in service,” Schaer told NJJN. “There are people who cannot get groceries themselves or are not in position to get them and this is an incredibly wonderful program. Certainly, it’s designed to meet the needs of the Jewish community, but everyone else is invited to participate.”
Also in attendance were State Sen. Joseph Cryan (D-Dist. 20), Elizabeth Mayor J. Christian Bollwage, and Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Dist. 20).
For information about future distribution dates, email GMWkosherfood@gmail.com.