By Mandy CoristonNewton - “There was a little boy in Montague who got in trouble for stealing chicken nuggets at school,” Sussex County Food Pantry volunteer Lisa Parrott said, “But it turned out he wasn’t eating them. He was wrapping them up in a napkin to take home for his little sister.” This story, and many like it, is the human reality of the startling statistics on the state of childhood hunger in New Jersey. According to numbers compiled by Feeding America, 1 in 5 children in New Jersey are food insecure or in food poverty. In Sussex County, that number translates to over 3,500 children, and nearly half of those children are ineligible for federal assistance programs. That leaves a gap between the reduced or free meal programs at school and the food that goes on the table at home. After hearing of the incident in Montague, Parrott and Carol Novrit, County Administrator of Health and Human Services, attended a summit held by NORWESCAP, and learned about their backpack snacks program. Taking that knowledge, Parrott, Novrit, and other volunteers began to experiment with ways to maximize their resources and bring a similar program to local schools. Now in its fourth school year, the food pantry’s “weekend bags” feed children in four Sussex County districts- Hopatcong, Franklin, Montague, and Newton. “We really played around with it,” Parrott said, “It was trial and error to make the biggest bundle we could fit into a gallon-size bag.” The idea was to parcel up as much food as possible into a package discreet and light enough to be carried home in a backpack. The result is a careful jigsaw puzzle, made up of two breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners, and snacks. “These bags cost just $7 apiece to assemble, and contain 13 items- one macaroni and cheese, one can of chicken noodle soup, one can of Spaghetti-o’s, and one can of tuna,” Parrott said, “plus two ramen noodles, two packets of oatmeal, three granola bars, and two packets of fruit snacks. They all have to be packed in a very specific order.” The bags are filled and boxed up on Thursday mornings, and representatives from the school districts come and pick them up to be distributed to children on Fridays. As Parrott spoke, a group from the Panther Valley Ecumenical Church was working as an assembly line, with a goal of packing 400 bags. The Sussex County Food Pantry volunteers and community groups come together to stuff and distribute 1,800 of the weekend bags each month, and they know there is still a need to expand the program. Parrott said that as long as food insecurity remains an issue for area children, they will continue the hard work of filling the food gap. “Times are lean for a lot of people. We know there’s a need,” Parrott said, “so if we are asked, we always find a way to do it.”Long-time pantry volunteer Ellie Daingerfield, her sister Judy Struble, and their sister-in-law Sue McCabe, spend as many Thursdays as they can at the food pantry, working on weekend bags and the pantry’s many other programs. The three women have been donating their time to the food bank for a decade, but say the weekend bags are one of the most vital services they’ve ever implemented. “One of my granddaughter’s friends told her she needed a bag,” Daingerfield said with tears in her eyes, “The kids had nothing but sugar water on the weekends. I can’t imagine my own grandchildren going without, and that’s why this program is so important.” School districts wishing to become participants in the program should contact Carol Novrit at 973-579-0559, ext. 1228. Community groups interested in volunteering to pack weekend bags or anyone looking to donate towards the program can call the food pantry at 973-383-3600, ext. 5179.Because food insecurity in Sussex County goes beyond the classroom, Novrit and Parrott want people to know the food pantry is both always available to use, and always taking donations. Novrit noted that people affected by the federal shutdown may need to visit the food pantry for grocery items until their paychecks resume. “We want residents to know we’re here, no matter their circumstances,” Novrit said. Parrott said, “The pantry is a give and take. Contributions lead to more contributions, but the food does no good sitting on the shelves. People can come take advantage of the resource, that’s why it’s here.” The pantry is stocked with a variety of goods for everyday meals, and even special occasions. Parrott pointed out a shelf full of white gift bags decorated with colorful ribbons. “No child should go without a birthday cake,” she said, “Someone donated all these bags- they have cake mix and frosting, and even plates and candles in them, in all different themes.” In 2018 alone, the Sussex County Food Pantry served 18,000 people and stocked the shelves at a dozen other local food banks. Any resident in need of food can visit the pantry at the County Services Building, 83 Spring St., Newton, during regular business hours, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.