Increase in people using South Jersey food pantries

In the week before Christmas, Tyler Rutherford, 12, of Mount Laurel, on school vacation, volunteered at Cherry Hill Food Pantry.
In the week before Christmas, Tyler Rutherford, 12, of Mount Laurel, on school vacation, volunteered at Cherry Hill Food Pantry. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 04, 2013

 The week before Christmas, a dozen people stood in a driveway on Chapel Avenue in Cherry Hill waiting to file into a small house filled with activity.

"We're ready," a volunteer inside the Cherry Hill Food Pantry called out as others rushed to pack paper bags with bagels, spaghetti, and eggs.

Those waiting for the pantry to open - seniors, a grandmother with a toddler, a mother holding a child to her hip - were invited inside, where they waited again to show proof of residency. Throughout the morning, people kept arriving, lining up outside the pantry.

"We will do 90 people this morning," Janet Giordano said in a stockroom inside the pantry, where she was directing volunteers. "They're packing as fast as they can."

The scene wasn't just a holiday-time phenomenon. A version of it plays out twice a week at the pantry all year. Since it opened in 2007, the pantry has seen a dramatic rise in demand, from serving 1,600 clients that first year to more than 13,000 in 2012.

Need is also on the rise at the Betsy and Peter Fischer Food Pantry in Cherry Hill, which serves kosher food. The pantry, which is run by Samost Jewish Family and Children's Service, served 225 new families last year, a 35 percent increase from the previous year.

Pantry directors attribute the increases to the recession and shifting demographics, factors that aren't limited to Cherry Hill but have significantly affected the community of 70,000. The number of township residents on food stamps rose from 1,070 in 2010 to 1,444 last year, according to Camden County officials.

"The affluence that was here years and years ago is no longer here," said Giordano, a volunteer director at the Cherry Hill Food Pantry, run by 10 religious organizations out of a house donated by St. Michael's Lutheran Church.

"They're in need of food, they're in need of counseling, they're in need of jobs," said Ronni Trainor, office manager for the Rhona Fischer Family Assistance Program, which operates the Fischer food pantry and provides vocational services.

A similar rise in demand is being seen in other communities.

"We're seeing people who used to donate food to us in the past and are now coming in for food," said Dennis Chang, director of combined services for the St. Vincent de Paul pantry in Berlin Borough.

Most of St. Vincent's new clients are laid-off parents, Chang said.

In Mount Holly, too, lost jobs have led to increased need. "People are unemployed and it's a huge factor," said Pamela Collins, chief development officer for Twin Oaks Community Services, which runs a pantry in the Burlington County community that last year served more than 10,800 people, nearly double the number it served in 2010.

Suburban pantries are requesting more food from the Food Bank of South Jersey, which supplies food to pantries in Camden, Gloucester, Burlington, and Salem Counties.

"As hunger and need travel to the once-comfortable suburbs, we are seeing the increases come primarily from suburban communities," said CEO Val Traore. The Food Bank, which also runs a mobile pantry, distributed 12 million pounds of food last year, up from eight million in 2008.

While pantry directors point to the recession, rising suburban need predates the economic downturn.

Between 2000 and 2008, the nation's population of the poor grew five times faster in suburbs of large metropolitan areas than in cities, according to the Brookings Institution.

Spurring that rise was a shift by affluent people away from inner-ring suburbs into newer, more exclusive suburbs, said Paul A. Jargowsky, professor of public policy at Rutgers-Camden and director of the Center for Urban Research and Education.

"People keep moving farther out, and the people who can't move out sort of stay where they are," he said.

In Cherry Hill, 4.3 percent of students in the school district qualified for free or reduced-cost lunch in 2000. By 2012, that figure had climbed to 17 percent, said Susan Bastnagel, public information officer for the district. The state average is 33 percent.

As demand in the community has increased, the Cherry Hill Food Pantry has responded by limiting whom it serves, and how often.

In 2009, the pantry, which gets food from the federal government and buys a portion of its needs from the Food Bank, decided to take new clients only from zip codes in Cherry Hill and Mount Laurel, though it recently slightly expanded the area it serves.

It also limited clients - who must also qualify for food stamps - to visiting only once every 28 days.

Despite the restrictions, "the numbers continued to climb," said Shelley Geehr, chairwoman of the Cherry Hill Food and Outreach Council, which oversees the pantry.

On the Thursday before Christmas, the pantry was busy, with patrons taking home donated turkeys.

Some were longtime patrons, people who started coming to the pantry before it imposed residency restrictions: a mother of four from Pennsauken who cleans houses for a living, a grandmother of 14 from Camden who took home wrapped presents.

New clients arrived as well. "Do you get food stamps?" a volunteer asked a man sitting at the intake table. Sixteen dollars a month, he told her.

"That's ridiculous," she said. He nodded and said: "I know."

Ushered in from the line outside, other patrons filled two rows of chairs set up in the pantry's waiting area. Among them was a 68-year-old retired insurance saleswoman from Cherry Hill who lives off Social Security and did not give her full name.

"People don't understand it," she said. "I guess they think everybody's wealthy."


For more information, call the Cherry Hill Food Pantry at 856-482-0678; the Betsy and Peter Fischer Food Pantry in Cherry Hill at 856-433-8225 for its Route 70 location and 856-424-1333 for its Springdale Road location; Twin Oaks Community Services in Mount Holly and Berlin at 609-267-5928; and the St. Vincent de Paul pantry in Berlin at 856-767-7391.

Contact Maddie Hanna at 856-779-3882 or mhanna@phillynews.com.

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