Since mid-March, the United States has seen mass unemployment as a result layoffs because of COVID-19, and food banks are facing an unprecedented surge in demand for food. Many local food pantries like Elijah’s Promise in New Brunswick, New Jersey struggle to find support and meet their communities’ needs.
“There is no national Elijah’s office,” Anthony Capece, the Associate Director of Elijah’s Promise, tells Food Tank. “It’s us trying to figure out what we can do for our community, and many other frontline organizations are in the same boat.”
Elijah’s Promise serves free meals across Greater New Brunswick and Central New Jersey. While the national poverty rate is just under 12 percent, 36 percent of New Brunswick’s population lives at or below the poverty line. The pantry plays a critical role in feeding residents in this region.
“We serve everyone living on the fringes of our economy,” Capece tells Food Tank. “And now more than ever, we need to make sure that we have meals and food ready for the community.”
The increase in clients has forced Elijah’s Promise to alter organizational efforts. Concentrating its resources on its kitchen services, the organization temporarily suspended all non-essential programming, says Capece. This includes its workforce development, social enterprising, and urban agriculture initiatives.
To protect staff and community, the soup kitchen reduced hours and now offers to-go meals in a limited area where clients pick up two hot meals. Elijah’s Promise aims to deliver 150 meals a day, but Capece expects demand to quadruple as communities cope with the economic repercussions of COVID-19.
The rise in demand is met with labor shortages. Capece explains that under normal conditions, Elijah’s Promise has 2,500-3,000 volunteers a year. But, to limit the spread of COVID-19, the organization cancelled its volunteer shifts, leaving just 26 employees to prepare and serve meals. Staff members now work on a rotational basis to keep each other safe.
Compounding this challenge of food distribution, Elijah’s Promise faces a funding problem. Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, the organization abruptly cancelled its largest fundraiser due to health concerns over public gatherings. Capece says the annual Chef’s Night fundraiser, would have generated approximately US$100,000 to US$125,000 to support their culinary school. Due to the dwindling health of the economy, Capece does not expect individual contributions to financially sustain the organization.
“We are in crisis fundraising mode, anticipating that people have a lot less money to give,” says Capece.
For now, however, Elijah’s Promise’s food supply remains uncompromised. The food pantry built a two-week reserve of frozen food in the case of a food shortage, and it continues to restock food through supermarkets and food wholesalers. Local organizations such as Local 130 Seafood and The Food Architects are also offering their help.
“We’re receiving an outpouring of support from local restaurants and caterers who are trying to get rid of food they have in inventory,” says Capece.
Even amid uncertainty, Capece underscores the need to support Elijah’s Promise and other local food pantries both during and after the pandemic. He encourages people to donate to their grassroots organizations to ensure they can continue supporting communities.
“I can only imagine the confusion and how hard it might be for folks struggling to think about where to find food the next day,” says Capece. “We’re going to have to continue serving this need.”
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture