Robin Persky’s love of food not only took her through a year-long program at the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan, but also made her think more about people who don’t have enough to eat. So when she got a call from Helaine Isaacs, resource development associate at Jewish Family and Children’s Service (JFCS) of Greater Mercer County, about doing a project for the agency, Persky asked whether it could be food-related.
“We and all the people around us go out to eat and don’t think about it,” Persky said. “We go to McCaffrey’s, Wegman’s, and we buy what we want. But so many people in the world can’t do this.”
Coincidentally — or serendipitously — JFCS had been exploring the idea of a mobile kosher food pantry, Isaacs told NJJN. Persky agreed to serve as initiator for the project, which will not only widely expand the reach of JFCS in its efforts to feed the hungry, but the fully equipped truck will also enable the agency to get the food from where it’s grown — for example, going to farms and gleaning the produce at the end of the season.
JFCS’s in-house kosher food pantry, the Yvette Sarah Clayman Kosher Food Pantry, located at the agency’s Princeton location, is generally open Mondays, 5-8 p.m., and Tuesdays during the workday, the first two weeks of each month; they also see people on an emergency basis. But, Persky said, it has its limitations “in terms of scope and hours,” and, she added, “it is at one location — and there are so many people in this greater Mercer County area who can’t get there.”
The mobile pantry, just like the in-house one, will allow clients to make an appointment and have a private shopping experience, selecting items from different categories, based on family size. JFCS expects to have the mobile pantry up and running by January.
“We are taking that same concept on the road,” Isaacs said. “We will have a refrigerator, two freezers, and nonperishable items on shelves, but people will still be able to choose what their family wants to eat as opposed to being handed a bag of groceries.”
The project, JFCS executive director Michelle Napell told NJJN, is a big undertaking that “is going to be life-changing” for the agency.
The cost for food alone will be about $200,000 for a year, with additional funds needed for staffing and truck maintenance and operation. The mobile pantry will go out eight times a month, each time to a different location, where it will feed between 30 and 50 families. JFCS will collaborate with community partners to identify locations with easy access for those with the greatest need.
“Nothing would make us happier than if we could get the truck out four times a week,” Napell said. “We know the need is there, but we are dependent on how much money we raise as to how many days we can get on the road.”
By the time Isaacs spoke to Persky, the agency had already come up with most of the funding to retrofit the truck with a refrigerator, two freezers, and shelving, but still needed money to stock the truck for two distributions each week throughout the year. Persky wanted to do something sustaining that would mobilize community members to get involved, and as the two women bounced ideas back and forth, they decided to create a group whose only mission is to reduce food insecurity in Mercer County.
She and the other committee members — long-time JFCS board member Carol Lerner, Sheryl Punia, and Paula Heller — created the Women’s Alliance, whose founding members will donate $1,000 or more to the food truck project, though all levels of donations are welcome. (This year they are focusing on funding the food pantry, although in the future they may choose a different project.)
The group is open to both men and women, but Persky had a particular reason for calling it Women’s Alliance.
“It’s so that women know there is a place they can go and voice their opinions and use their dollars to decide how they want to contribute,” she said.
A thank you lunch for founding members on Thursday, Oct. 24, will feature Dana Cowin, former editor-in-chief of Food and Wine magazine; host of the Speaking Broadly podcast; and a member of the food council for City Harvest, which rescues healthy food from farms, restaurants, grocers, and manufacturers and hosts mobile markets in New York City.
In addition to funding from Women’s Alliance, JFCS is seeking grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and from corporate and individual donors.
The food truck has a feature designed to provide a platform to thank supporters. The names or logos of founding sponsors will appear permanently on the truck, and a magnetic area on the body of the vehicle will enable JFCS to add the names of corporations or individuals who sponsor a specific stop (at about $2,500) or even an entire month of stops. Local businesses can also get their employees involved in helping to shop for and stock the mobile food pantry and participate at distribution sites.
At present, they have agreed on specs for retrofitting the food truck into the rolling pantry. The eight locations they are targeting at the launch, Napell said, are “food desert places, where people can’t get to brick and mortar pantries.”
To serve people in the interim, JFCS is sponsoring pop-up pantries. Recently they packed up SUVs with fruit, vegetables, meat, and other foods, with the help of staff and volunteers, and took it to Better Beginnings, a preschool daycare center in Hights-town. Because they already had a relationship with the center, they asked that families sign up in advance; 30 families signed up, but they ended up serving over 70.
“It was an amazing experience,” Napell said. “The kids were so adorable, thanking us and hugging us. They were so excited for a fruit cup, it was heartbreaking.”
She added, “You just know you’re making a difference. You wouldn’t believe fresh groceries would be so life-changing and mean so much to someone.”
If you go
What: Women’s Alliance inaugural luncheon
Who: Dana Cowin, former editor-in-chief, Food & Wine magazine, member of the City Harvest food council
Where: Eno Terra, Kingston
When: Thursday, Oct. 24, noon-2 p.m.
Cost: Donation of $1,000 or more as founding member of
RSVP: Helaine Isaacs at 609-987-8100, ext. 104