That’s what one volunteer observed on a recent Saturday morning as he and others loaded up another vehicle with frozen chicken, fresh produce and other goods during a drive-thru food pantry sponsored by Rise and the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen that fed nearly 1,300 families – the largest draw since the event started in March when the COVID-19 pandemic hit New Jersey.
An inaugural event for TASK, the day-long drive-thru called Rise to the TASK, was the latest of 10 orchestrated by Rise, a community service organization and food pantry serving the East Windsor-Hightstown area in Mercer County. The two long-time collaborators came together on the venture to affect the growing hunger and food insecurity resulting from the health crisis and help already vulnerable communities avoid further decline. TASK supplied 65,000 pounds of food and Rise provided the means to deliver it to people who needed it most.
“Soup kitchens, food pantries, food banks – we’re all seeing the same things,” said TASK Executive Director Joyce E. Campbell, who worked alongside volunteers breaking down cardboard boxes. “While things are tough in the cities, the suburbs and rural communities are also struggling. TASK wanted to further its mission and help those people too. In Rise we have a strong partner and they had already done this before. We just asked them if we could buy the food.”
While TASK and Rise have worked together for about eight years through the soup kitchen’s community meal service sites in the East Windsor-Hightstown area, the drive-thru was a departure from the conventional. Because families were asked about their preferences, the soup kitchen ordered the food, making this drive-thru a bit different from others where donated food is often a random mix. Each family received one bag of frozen fish or chicken, two dozen eggs, a gallon of milk, two bags of rice, juice, coffee and fresh produce
“It’s uncommon for a soup kitchen to purchase food for a food pantry or food bank,” explained TASK Associate Director of Operations Paul Jensen. “Typically soup kitchens buy from them. But these are strange times where food banks and pantries are low on supply because of COVID-19. And since we have a little more because our donors have been especially generous during this crisis, we were able to purchase food for the pantry for this event.”
TASK has also recently purchased food[TC1] for the Mercer Street Food Bank in Ewing. That donation was 38,000 pounds – nearly half the amount of food distributed during the drive-thru which welcomed 747 vehicles. Additionally, more than two hundred people made their way to Rise in Hightstown to pick up food onsite. Clad in an orange Rise to the TASK t-shirt, Rise Executive Director Leslie Koppel directed traffic and volunteers as she explained the event got started when restaurant owners whose businesses slowed under public gathering restrictions donated their surplus perishables and things grew from there.
“We distributed the donations from our parking lot at first, serving a smaller amount of people; then more people showed up,” Koppel said, adding she was delighted to work with TASK on this latest venture. “Then we moved to a larger church lot, but then it got to the point where we needed a larger space.”
Saturday’s drive-thru was one of three that had to be staged at the industrial-sized parking lot owned by VCNY-Home in Hightstown. The company, formerly known as Victoria’s Classics, donated its warehouse lot on U.S. Route 33 which was packed by the time the drive-thru opened around 9:30 am. The first vehicles arrived a few hours earlier, but were followed shortly by minivans, SUVs and pick-up trucks that made their way to rows that were six vehicles wide and 12 deep.
While some were filled with entire families, most carried people in pairs or trios, representing more than one family and many walks of life. Most smiled through their masks, waved and expressed words of gratitude aloud. “Thank you and God bless you,” said a man riding solo who said he was the father of four. Another recipient – a woman in a minivan said she had been to a previous drive-thru and brought her neighbor. She shared she had frequented TASK when she did not have food at home and was “truly appreciative,” of the work done by soup kitchens and pantries. “Those meals really make a difference,” she said as she neared the loading point.
Volunteer Gary Hill can empathize. The Trenton resident said he ate at TASK for years while learning the computer skills that eventually helped him land a job and launch his own business. Now with steady work as a water distributor, he was able to donate his time and 150 cases of bottled of water.
“I’m really glad I could be here,” Hill said as he watched vehicles come and go. “It really is all about giving back.”