A new Stanhope-based program to combat hunger is a truly grassroots effort, but it also features roots of many other kinds — like squash, beans, watermelon, lettuce, and tomatoes.
A food pantry program that offers fresh produce is, literally and figuratively, a groundbreaking move.
It all began at a board meeting of the Roseville Community Garden sponsored by Hudson Farm in January, where one of the topics was food waste. “A board member suggested we encourage gardeners to donate some of their excess produce to a food pantry,” said Katie Baron of Byram, president of the garden board. “I contacted several food pantries in northern New Jersey, but none of them would accept fresh produce.”
A couple of months later, prompted by economic hardships presented by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting temporary shutdown of the food pantry at the St. Michael Church in Netcong, Sharon Leon had an idea of her own.
“When the pandemic took hold I had to work from home, but there were a lot of people who were out of work,” said Leon. “I wanted to feel useful when so many people were struggling and feeling out of control.” Leon had done some volunteer work for the mobile food pantry out of Waterloo United Methodist Church, so in mid-March she started running a mobile food pantry out of her home in Stanhope and posting it on Facebook.
Starting with her own funds, and in conjunction with Pastor Tim Nicinski at her church, Leon bought enough food to fill 10 bags and delivered them all. Then she contacted Stanhope Schools Superintendent Steven Hageman to see if she could help families with students on the free and reduced lunch program and her deliveries nearly tripled.
Word gets around
While welcoming volunteer assistance, Leon also began doing monthly pickups of food donations at Stanhope’s Valley Road School, which had closed due to the pandemic. With the word getting around, other donors were dropping off boxes and bags of groceries on the doorstep of her Linden Avenue home.
Baron, meanwhile, was still keeping an eye out for ways community gardeners could pass along some of their produce to neighbors in need.
“Sometime in June, I was looking at the ‘Byram Stanhope Netcong Making a Difference Together’ group on Facebook,” recalled Baron. “I saw Sharon’s post about a pop-up food pantry and messaged her to ask if she’d take fresh produce.”
Leon replied “yes” without hesitation.
“We don’t want anyone to feel like they can’t come and ask for help without being asked a lot of questions,” said Leon. “I don’t need to know who they are or where they live. It’s humbling enough to have to ask for help in the first place, so they don’t need any more anxiety.”
The timing worked out perfectly – Sunday evenings garden volunteers would collect donated produce, harvest from the 2.5 plots designated for the food pantry program, and deliver it all to Leon’s house.
The produce would then be distributed Monday morning. With a fresh produce pipeline and a lot of volunteer support, the food pantry program took off. When Valley Road School reopened to students several weeks ago, Leon got the go-ahead from Stanhope Borough officials to move her operation to the vacant Linden Avenue School. She established a few regular weekly hours there and has collected about 5,000 pounds of food. Leon estimates that, by mid-September, about 3,000 pounds, including a cornucopia of produce from the community garden, was distributed to households in need.
“Roseville Community Garden is truly about community. We have been able to work together to help those in need be-cause of COVID-19,” said Baron. “There’s joy in having the ability to help people, while maintaining their dignity. We can’t stop COVID-19, but we can stop people from going hungry.”
Support for the food pantry has been strong. Online pleas for a refrigerator, freezer and shelving were answered within days. Someone even donated a butchered steer. People have come from as far away as Parsippany and Ramsey to donate food, and it continues to be delivered, as needed.
Trips have been made to Wantage, Toms River, and Dingmans Ferry, Pa., with contacts coming through Leon’s church.
Buoyed by the generosity of donors and support of volunteers like the community gardeners, Leon hopes to expand by accepting clothing donations, and would like to find a permanent home for the food pantry. While it sounds like an ambitious effort for such a small community, Leon is not concerned about getting in over her head.
“It’s not my mission. I’m just doing my part right now for whatever the greater mission is,” she said. “A lot of people have their own agendas, but this isn’t about politics or religion. It’s about people helping people. No strings attached.”
For information about the food pantry, email Leon at email@example.com, or call 973-796-0214. Pantry drop-in hours are Mondays, 7-8:30 a.m., and Wednesdays, 5:30-7 p.m., or by appointment. For information about Roseville Community Garden, email Baron at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bill Woolley is a retired community weekly journalist, living in Byram Township. Email email@example.com.