‘We turn hunger into hope’

Nonprofit groups discuss how to address hunger

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Hunger is real and the need to provide food is growing.

That’s the message from seven nonprofit groups that feed the hungry in Princeton, Lawrence Township, Trenton and other towns in Mercer County.

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Representatives of the organizations – from the Mercer Street Friends food bank to Arm in Arm, the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, the Jewish Family & Children’s Services and the Rescue Mission of Trenton – spoke about the challenges to combating food insecurity at a panel discussion Feb. 15.

The forum, held at Morven Museum & Garden in Princeton, was co-sponsored by HomeFront and the Morven Museum & Garden in connection with HomeFront’s annual “Week of Hope” awareness-raising campaign about homelessness and poverty.

“We believe it is possible to meet the crisis of hunger,” said HomeFront CEO Sarah Steward. She reminded attendees that HomeFront began by delivering food to the motels along Route 1 in Lawrence Township that sheltered homeless families.

The challenge for Mercer Street Friends is funding, said James Allen, its chief operating officer and food bank director. The food bank supplies food to nonprofit groups for distribution.

“I get afraid that I may not be able to sustain” the nonprofit groups that rely on the Mercer Street Friends food bank for food, Allen said.

Joyce Campbell, the CEO of the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK), agreed that one of the challenges is having access to food. TASK provided 49,000 meals at its numerous sites in Mercer County last month, she said.

At the Rescue Mission of Trenton, the challenge is providing wrap-around services to clients, said DuEwa Edwards-Dickinson.

“The families come for food, but they need help with other issues going on in their lives,” she said.

But for Cecilia Avila of Arm in Arm, the challenge is volunteers – not food.

“The need for volunteers is critical,” Avila said. “The volunteers who interact with the families who come for food also learn more about them and their needs.

“Volunteers do not have to be bilingual to help families whose members do not speak English. They will learn how to communicate with the families.”

Nutrition is a challenge and a key ingredient to feeding families well, noted Dylan O’Neill of HomeFront, adding a nonprofit can provide food, but it has to be nutritious.

“The recipients come from many different cultures and countries, and they may not be familiar with the food in this country,” he said. “They may not understand what it means to buy nutritious food and where to buy it.”

Campbell agreed, and asked rhetorically whether people are ready to eat nutritious food.

“Many times, people are in an emergency situation and only want to feel that their stomachs are full before they move on to the next issue,” she said.

Allen said it is not possible to separate funding from nutrition.

“Good food costs money,” he said. “When the Mercer Street Friends finds a good price on a food item, we buy it in bulk.”

Steward said despite impossible, it is possible to help families realize that healthy food can taste good. There is a kitchen at HomeFront’s Connie Mercer Family Preservation Center where the clients who live there can learn how to prepare nutritious meals.

“When we show them (how to prepare nutritious meals), it is a conversion experience. They want to do better,” she said.

When Steward asked the panelists what they would like the attendees to know about their work, Campbell was quick to point to the help that TASK offers to recipients.

“We turn hunger into hope,” Campbell said.

Providing meals is often the first step and it is also the easy part, she said. The individuals and families come with many other issues in their lives. TASK tries to help them through programs and services that it offers – from education to job searches.

Wrapping up the panel discussion, Steward stated, “We have to hope things can change. It’s an audacious hope. I know you are all in the fight with us.”

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