By Gloria Stravelli
METUCHEN – The YMCA’s annual summer food drive is at the halfway mark, with one month to go to donate to help neighbors in need of food assistance.
“Hunger Doesn’t Take A Vacation,” theme of the food drive, calls attention to the fact that even during summer months, families and individuals experience food insecurity.
“We’re just recognizing that even in the summer months there’s food insecurity and it just doesn’t go away. So that doesn’t get to go on vacation,” said Christine Tolley, director of operations for the Metuchen YMCA. “In the summertime we see many families and individuals going on vacation and relaxing, but that food insecurity doesn’t go away. Sometimes we only think about it during the holidays when we tend to see either a push or other collections happening.”
The summer food drive began July 1 and runs through Aug. 31. Donations of canned and nonperishable food items are being accepted, as well as monetary donations and store gift cards to help restock the pantry at the First Presbyterian Church in Metuchen, located at 270 Woodbridge Ave.
“We work very closely with Sarah Teti, coordinator over at the pantry,” Tolley said. “She’ll let us know what they’re low on so we just continue to work together.”
According to Teti, the First Presbyterian Church food pantry has been a ministry of the congregation for more than 20 years and has grown in capacity and outreach from its beginning as a closet filled with canned goods and volunteers packing groceries for a few families in the community.
“Someone in need would come and they would be able to give them a bag of food and then about 15 years ago, it got a little more formalized and they were packing for a few families in the community,” Teti said, “and then by about 10 years ago, they were really packing in earnest for several families between Metuchen and Edison.
“At that time they started coming up with a plan to expand the food pantry area,” she said, eventually building an expansion on the social center for the food pantry.
Teti said she was hired four years ago to turn the food pantry from a place where volunteers would pack bags for clients to a store where clients could come in and shop for their own food.
“That cuts down on waste, and also creates a nicer environment where we can talk to people about other needs that they have and we’re able to have a more holistic approach to people in need,” she said.
According to Teti, prior to the pandemic, about 70 families per month were coming to shop at the food pantry, but that number has grown.
“Since the pandemic began, we started serving on a weekly basis. We only give out two bags to each family per week and we are at about 100-110 families a week at this point,” she said. “Donations of groceries and funds come from the YMCA and the congregation.”
The pandemic had a direct impact on the pantry she said, and some are beneficial.
“At the beginning of the pandemic it was very hard to shop and people didn’t want to leave their homes. The community donated a lot of funding to us,” she said. “We’ve been able to use that money to buy groceries at the lowest price possible, even getting in touch with food distribution companies so that we can cut out the middleman during the pandemic.
“Also, we’ve actually come up with a neighborhood food drive model that we’ve been having people in town do. It’s very contactless: you hand out a flier in your neighborhood, maybe just around your block, and it will list some items that the pantry needs, and then at the bottom you put a date when you’ll come and pick it up from their porch.
“And so a lot of families in Metuchen have done that and it’s been very, very successful.”
She added, “The Y Togetherhood organization took the neighborhood food drive idea and really ran with it. Lots of their members did neighborhood food drives for us and they’ve really been like a lifeline for us to keep our shelves stocked.”
During 2021, the Metuchen YMCA is celebrating its 100th year. The local Y is part of a larger association known as MEWSA, for the YMCA of Metuchen, Edison, Woodbridge and South Amboy.
Tolley explained the food drive is one facet of the YMCA’s Togetherhood initiative, which connects with and supports other community organizations.
“Togetherhood is empowering our YMCA members to focus outward into our community and we have really made food insecurity and blood drives our two priorities,” she explained.
“We’ve been running Togetherhood out of our branch since 2015 … and we’ve worked with some other agencies like the Metuchen Downtown Alliance … and we’ve provided volunteers to help the American Legion. So there are opportunities where other organizations will call upon us and then we reach out and see how we can help.”
Tolley added that due to COVID, new protocols were put in place to ensure donating could be done safely.
“We were collecting not only with our staff and our volunteers and our members, we were allowing people to drive by and leave the food donations if they didn’t feel comfortable coming in,” Tolley said. “We were also going to their homes if they gave us their information and we would pick up at the curb or on their porch. So they were still part of the giving process.”
She acknowledged the pandemic has impacted donations.
“The pandemic has really put a dent in it,” she said. “But we have our tried-and-true members that give selflessly weekly to our project and that doesn’t just encompass items, it encompasses store gift cards or food gift cards and monetary donations. So far since we started, for the whole year since January, all of 2021, we’re over 4,000 items and over $1,000 in cash and store cards.
“We do see the summer start to tend to die off a little bit because people are on vacation, people are doing more things outside.
“We use our social media to remind people that they don’t necessarily need to be a member of the Y, that we’re always here to accept a donation. People can bring donations to the Welcome Center and we’ll be able to accept donations of either nonperishables, monetary or store gift cards. And it all goes back to replenish the pantry over at the First Presbyterian Church.”
According to Tolley and Teti, the most needed nonperishable food items include: Parmalat milk, juice, peanut butter, jelly, pancake mix, syrup, cold and hot cereals, macaroni and cheese, canned soup, spaghetti sauce, fruits and vegetables in cans or plastic, beans, canned meats, pasta, rice, mashed potato mix, granola bars, pudding, coffee, tea bags and hot chocolate.
“We kind of figure out what everyone’s needs are and where everything should go when there are donations being made,” Tolley said, “and when the food pantry can’t accept them we know where our next phone call should go.”
“We’re here for the community,” Tolley said, “and we continue to help where we can. Our website, www.ymcaofmewsa.org, always has information if you would like to become involved with Togetherhood.”