HV Mobile Food Pantry’s third anniversary was celebrated with new equipment and unremitting zeal

When Hopewell Valley’s Mobile Food Pantry was created in response to the early days of the COVID pandemic, former Pennington Mayor Joe Lawver and the pantry’s other founders thought they would be operational for several weeks or maybe a few months could.

As organizers look ahead to the Pantry’s third anniversary on March 13th, it’s clear the need is as great as ever. Demand has increased by 20% since August, when food prices rose. The recent end of SNAP’s (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps) expanded COVID benefits is likely to increase demand further in the coming months.

“The need will never go away,” Lawver said. “This will continue as long as we are here.”

On Saturday, Lawver met with representatives from a group of residents at Brandon Farms to collect a check to cover the cost of a new upright pantry refrigerator/freezer.

“Friends of Brandon Farm expressed an interest in giving back to the community during one of their informal coffee talks,” said Uma Purandare, member of the Hopewell Township Committee. “Incidentally, I happened to be speaking to Joe Lawver to better understand the current needs at Hopewell Valley Mobile Food Pantry. The generous donation raised funds to cover the needs of the pantry [of the Brandon Farms friends] to buy the equipment. This project is an example “by the community, by the community, for the community”.

The new refrigerator/freezer and an existing commercial refrigerator allow the pantry to distribute fresh produce, eggs and other perishables as part of their weekly distribution, Lawver said. The freezer can also allow the pantry to start collecting and distributing proteins that need to be frozen.

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“That’s the important thing about the fridge. We can keep things fresh,” Lawver said.

Lawver told the group the story of an elderly Hopewell Township veteran who had been using the pantry for the past 18 months or so. The man was ill with COVID and spent four weeks in the hospital. For older people, COVID can be a death sentence. But his doctors attributed his recovery in part to his quality diet, which the pantry contributed to.

“That’s the kind of influence we have,” Lawver said. “And it wouldn’t be possible without the help of the community.”

The idea for a mobile pantry was first raised by then-principal Thomas Smith, who was concerned that while the school could offer breakfast and lunch to low-income students during the pandemic, their families might be struggling with job loss or other factors of food insecurity. Lawver, then Mayor of the Borough of Pennington, reached out to his contacts and the Pantry was started with the first few boxes of donations distributed along with breakfast and lunch during the school day, with the school buses idling early in the morning days of the pandemic.

From then on, the effort decreased. The pantry moved to the gym attached to the Hopewell Valley Regional School District offices. A donation box was placed outside the door and groceries filled the makeshift shelves, some built by a local contractor and some in the works as part of a local boy’s Eagle Scout project.

Community groups also began collecting food from local grocery stores. According to Purandare, Brandon Farms’ group meets every three months outside of Pennington Quality Market, which has also been very supportive, to collect pantry items.

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The Pantry receives no public funding and is an entirely volunteer initiative funded by approximately $40,000 per year in donations, primarily used to purchase groceries. The Pantry also works with the Hopewell YMCA, Arm in Arm, Mercer Street Friends, Home Front, TASK and several local farms and businesses who donate between £500 and £1,000 of produce a week. Groups of high school students voluntarily put together delivery boxes on Tuesdays.

The Pantry delivers groceries to 95 families every Wednesday and provides 30 to 50 people with take-out groceries every Saturday morning – two full bags of groceries and one bag of produce. There’s also a pickup bin outside the gym that’s stocked for people who can drop by at other times. According to Maude Tatar, one of the volunteer coordinators, the products are among the most valued items.

The Pantry serves everyone in the community and requires no proof of need or proof of residency. Families also come from neighboring townships, and nobody is turned away.

About 40% of the pantry’s customers are seniors,” Lawver said, which was a little surprising at first. As many as half are professionals who do not earn enough to make ends meet, and most of the others are people in transition or in crisis because of job loss or changed circumstances.

And while some people are surprised that food insecurity is an issue in a place like Hopewell Valley, which is considered to be so prosperous, Purandare said it’s important to dig deeper into the community

“The need is there,” she says. “COVID showed us that. And even if COVID ends, there is no need.”

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