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Lawrence Township police officers host food drive to benefit HomeFront

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Linda Schwarz walked purposefully up to the group of Lawrence Township police officers – off-duty, none of them in uniform – to deliver a grocery bag that was full of food.

A police officer accepted Schwarz’s grocery bag and thanked her, placing it next to the growing pile of bags of food on the sidewalk at the Lawrence Shopping Center on Dec. 5.

“More people should do this. If people would do more things like this, it would be a better place,” Schwarz said, promising to come back later with another bag full of food.

The Villegas family – Carlos and Sheila, and daughters Carly and Kelsy – also handed over bags of groceries to the police officer. Their bags were filled with canned beans, pasta, peanut butter and even some diapers.

“We talk a lot about this at home, to help out the community. Carly picked out the food. She didn’t realize how expensive diapers are,” Carlos Villegas said of his 12-year-old daughter.

It was all part of the Lawrence Township Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 209’s annual food drive, which benefits HomeFront and its food pantry. The Lawrence Township-based nonprofit organization helps the homeless and the working poor.

This is the fifth year FOP Lodge 209 has held a food drive for HomeFront’s benefit, said Police Officer John Stever. He organized the first food drive in 2017.

“We wanted to find something we could do every year to benefit the community. We wanted to try to find a way to reach out to a broad segment of the community that we could serve in an impactful way,” Stever said.

That is when Stever reached out to HomeFront. It occurred to Stever and his fellow officers that HomeFront would be the “best avenue” to accomplish the lodge’s goal.

HomeFront, which has been in existence for more than 30 years, does a good job in helping out people who need assistance, he said.

While the main purpose of the food drive is to collect food, a secondary purpose is to offer Lawrence residents a chance to engage with the police officers, Stever said.

“We want people to stay and talk to us and interact with us. If we can get the personal interactions as much as the food donations we receive, we will achieve our goal,” he said.

Stever said “it is not lost on us” that there are many food drives, especially during the holiday season, so FOP Lodge 209 hopes to make its food drive more well-known.

“We are considering expanding the food drive and to hold one in the spring, too, because there is a need for this all year round,” Stever said.

Tricia Hannon, who is HomeFront’s community engagement data manager, stood off to one side and watched as donors presented bags of food to the police officers.

“I get excited every time they reach out to hold a food drive. I think it’s a great partnership to have with the community,” Hannon said of police union’s food drive.

There has been a lot of need for food and diapers over the past 18 months, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hannon said. The need is present all year and not just around the holidays.

Almost immediately after the pandemic struck, the line of people seeking food assistance from HomeFront’s food pantry wrapped around the block, HomeFront officials said.

There were two to three times as many people seeking food than there were before the pandemic. About 500 families sought help for food every month before the pandemic, but that number has not dropped below 1,000 families for months, officials said.

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