HomeFront gears up for Thanksgiving food drive that will feed thousands

There are few things more satisfying for families than to sit down at the table and watch while the master carver, whether it’s the dad, the mom or someone else, takes apart the Thanksgiving turkey.

But for many families, it’s just a dream, unless someone steps forward to pack a basket or a box with all the trimmings for a Thanksgiving Day dinner, during HomeFront Inc.’s annual Thanksgiving Drive.

HomeFront, which is based in Lawrence Township, is a nonprofit organization that helps the homeless and the working poor.

As it has for more than two decades, HomeFront is seeking donors, individuals, businesses or corporations, to make sure no child goes hungry on Thanksgiving Day, or any other day. The goal is to feed at least 2,000 families for Thanksgiving.

That is why HomeFront is asking for help to fill those baskets and drop them off at its headquarters at 1880 Princeton Avenue between Nov. 5-19. Arrangements can be made to pick up large donations.

A typical basket contains a grocery store gift card for a turkey, canned vegetables, canned fruit, mashed potatoes, stuffing mix, dessert items and fruit juice, plus anything else to make a family’s Thanksgiving special. The basket could also contain food for the rest of the week, such as cereal, peanut butter and jelly.

HomeFront has been filling Thanksgiving Day baskets since its inception nearly three decades ago. At first, there were dozens of baskets to fill. Then, there were hundreds of baskets to prepare. Now, the number of baskets is more than 2,000.

Last year, HomeFront distributed 2,264 baskets to the homeless and low-income, at-risk families and children. This year the need will be at least as great, HomeFront officials said.

That’s because the number of families in need is increasing. Rents have skyrocketed, the cost of utilities has increased and wages continue to stay low, HomeFront officials said.

“It’s not just the homeless who will receive a basket. There are still people who are living on the margin, people who work at daycare centers, assisted living facilities and fast-food restaurants. They can’t make it. They are the working poor,” said Connie Mercer, the founder and executive director of HomeFront.

HomeFront got its start nearly 30 years ago when Mercer and two friends prepared a traditional Thanksgiving Day meal and took the food, packed in Styrofoam containers, to the motels on Brunswick Pike in Lawrence that housed individuals who did not have a permanent home.

Mercer was introduced to the plight of the homeless through  Dr. Chris Hansen, who worked for Mercer County and was in charge of medical services. He asked her to go with him to the motels to see how homeless families were living.

When Mercer realized those families, jammed into a motel room without a kitchen or the means to buy food, would not enjoy what her family had always enjoyed on Thanksgiving Day, she organized her friends to help prepare a festive meal for them.

The women realized they had more to do and reached out to groups to help cook and deliver meals to the motels five days a week. There were several motels on Brunswick Pike at that time and that is how Mercer County handled its obligation to provide emergency housing.

About a dozen years ago, HomeFront opened its Family Preservation Center on the grounds of the Katzenbach School for the Deaf in Ewing Township. The center recently moved to another location, off Scotch Road in Hopewell Township.

The relocated Family Preservation Center has expanded its programs to help clients, mostly single mothers with children, to get back on their feet and become independent, Mercer said.

“We have done a good job of moving people quickly from homelessness to a home,” she said. “It’s much better to have Thanksgiving in your own home. It’s not just the meal, but preparing and cooking your own food in your own way.”

For more information about conducting a Thanksgiving Day drive or to make a financial contribution, contact HomeFront at homefront@homefrontnj.org or call 609-989-9417, ext. 137.