TOMS RIVER – A steady stream of cars pulled up in the parking lot of the Presbyterian Church, heading towards a group of ready volunteers.
Drivers blew up their trunks or volunteers opened car doors to place boxes of food inside. Other volunteers brought bags of carrots and onions, as well as fresh fruit. It was a typical Friday morning at the Toms River food distribution, with one exception; March 18 marked the second anniversary of the food contest.
“When the pandemic first hit, we knew we had to do something for the residents,” said former councilwoman Maria Maruca, describing the start of the “Pop the Trunk” food distribution. “We started on Good Friday; we thought it would only be a few weeks. »
But two years later, the need is still there. So a regular group of volunteers, which includes Maruca, former councilman Terrance Turnbach, Toms River Regional Board of Education chair Jennifer Howe, and Mayor Maurice B. “Mo” Hill Jr., come to the parking lot. of church on Friday mornings, rain, snow or shine, to help keep people from going hungry.
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These days, it’s soaring prices for items like food, fuel and rent that have put a strain on family budgets.
“It’s amazing, really,” Howe said. “The need has now changed. It’s mostly people on fixed incomes. It’s about buying food or getting gas.” The stories are often heartbreaking to hear, she says.
The week before, a man who drove in for food said he was unlikely to be able to return for two weeks; his car insurance was about to expire and he wouldn’t have enough money to renew it right away, Howe said.
At the turbulent start of the pandemic, Toms River launched its food distribution program at four locations in the city, as well as one in the nearby town of South Toms River. These days, the main food distribution is at the Presbyterian Church on Hooper Avenue, but volunteers are also delivering meals to homebound residents across the city, making about 70 deliveries a week, Turnbach said. .
“It’s a great group,” said Toms River resident Pat Jemison, who has been volunteering with the food distribution for about two months. “You have fun and you help people.”
Toms River resident Jimmy Ryan agreed.
“I think it’s great,” said Ryan, who has also been volunteering for about two months. “You meet a lot of good people and help a lot of good people.”
Watch the volunteers in action in the video above.
Each week, volunteers distribute 450 food “crisis boxes”, provided by Fulfill, formerly the Monmouth and Ocean Counties Food Bank. The boxes contain enough food to feed a family of four for six days and are provided free of charge in Toms River.
Fulfill has provided 50,045 crisis boxes for distribution in Toms River since the pandemic began 2 years ago. Each box weighs approximately 30 pounds, which is equivalent to 1,501,350 pounds of food provided by Fulfill.
“We are so grateful to this group of Toms River volunteers who work tirelessly each week to help Fulfill reach our neighbors who are struggling to put food on the table for their families,” said the CEO and Chairman of Fulfill, Triada Stampas. “The pandemic continues to be difficult for so many people, and together we have been able to provide shelf stable foods, as well as fresh produce, meat and dairy products to children, the elderly, veterans, etc. Our sincere gratitude to everyone in Toms River who made this partnership possible!”
The food boxes are supplemented with bread from Stop & Shop and products from Fulfill and MV Silveri & Sons of Lakewood. Hot meals were provided by Chef Lou’s Army, led by Chef Lou Smith of Blend on Main restaurant in Manasquan.
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Those looking for food don’t have to register or even give their name. Pulling into the church parking lot, the volunteers simply ask how many boxes of food they need.
Mayor Hill said Toms River has no plans to stop food distribution.
“I thought it was going to go down, but after COVID, now it’s all about the cost of living,” Hill said.
And volunteers like to give back. One of them on the second anniversary on Friday was Marlon, a former homeless man who had previously volunteered at the township’s Code Blue shelter for the homeless in Riverwood Park.
“I was lucky enough to be housed at the shelter during Code Blue,” said Marlon, who recently found an apartment in Keyport. “It was a chance to help…I’m so lucky to have an apartment.” Marlon joined the transport team of Just Believe Inc., the non-profit organization that runs the Code Blue shelter in Toms River, and on March 18 he was helping hoist crisis boxes into waiting cars.
The Toms River Free Food Distribution takes place Fridays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Presbyterian Church, 1070 Hooper Ave. For more information about the Fulfill Food Bank, visit https://fulfillnj.org/.
Jean Mikle has covered Toms River and several other towns in Ocean County, and has been writing about local government and politics on the Jersey Shore for nearly 37 years. She is also passionate about the Shore’s historic music scene. Contact her: @jeanmikle, [email protected]