By Stefanie Sears
The Montclair Community Farms (MCF) Coalition’s goal is to sell produce at affordable prices to Montclair seniors and is now expanding to local food pantries in order to bring fresh produce to seniors and others in need.
The MCF’s Mobile Farm Stand will be joining forces once again with the Verona Food Pantry at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit, which is open on the fourth Saturday of every month, by selling fresh seasonal produce on their grounds. The stand will be available in the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit parking lot from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on July 22, Aug. 26, Sept. 23, and Oct. 28.
Each shopper will be given a $5 voucher to use for purchase. The representative from Montclair Community Farms organizes the money spent and the church pays for the produce bought by the parking lot shoppers with donations made to the food pantry.
“It is a great way for us to be able to provide our shoppers with healthy options, which has been of interest to our parish members,” explains Rev. Jerry Racioppi.
One third of the food pantry shoppers mainly come from the Verona-Cedar Grove area, but it also receives patrons from Bloomfield and Montclair as well.
The Verona Food Pantry began on April 23, 2016 as a dream of the congregation’s Outreach Committee to provide food to the hungry in town, the need for which was determined through research achieved with the Verona Department of Health representative Connie Pfieffer. After planning and meeting with another food pantry, St. Agnes in Little Falls, the committee geared towards an opening in 2016. A parishioner provided funds in 2015 to renovate an old kitchen space and provide storage space and on opening day, 18 shoppers came to patronize.
“Our target audience is Verona-Cedar Grove and surrounding towns, but we currently do not turn anyone away,” explains Racioppi. “We ask our shoppers only two questions: a. what is your zip code; b. how did you hear about us? This helps us understand a little about our shoppers, but allows us to maintain their anonymity. The congregation stressed the importance of people’s confidentiality from the beginning of the planning for this ministry. We do everything we can to offer that confidentiality. Because we do not currently receive any state funds, we are able to limit our questions of our shoppers.”
Considering that the Verona Food Pantry is fairly new, it has faced both some growing pains and benefits.
“We were originally opened for a four hour window, then cut it back to three, and now two hours,” says Racioppi. “Most of our shoppers are in and out by 9:45 a.m., and from that time until 11 a.m., we may see three to five additional shoppers. So, the challenge is being ready for the 9 a.m. open time and the busyness of the 9-9:30 a.m. time frame, but we have learned to manage it. We open our doors at 8:30 a.m. and give out numbers, much like a bakery, so that we call people in groups of four to five by the number they received when then entered the building,” explains Racioppi.
“Our shoppers seem to like the amount and variety of cleaning supplies, which can be costly, that we offer,” he says. “I wish we got more donations from people based on the list we publish on our website, but thankfully we have been able to pay for the ‘shopping,’ getting items to fully stock the pantry before we open on a fourth Saturday from financial donations from various organizations in town,” such as Verona Woman’s League, Verona Junior Woman’s Group and UNICO Verona, as well as individual donations. “Other than that, we continue to learn how to improve our operation each month, and I feel we have it down to a decent system that works for both shoppers and volunteers alike.”
The Verona Food Pantry accepts unexpired non-perishable items and every month updates its website with a list of needed materials.
“People typically donate peanut butter, but never jelly. We get lots of pasta donated, but seldom do we get pasta sauce,” explains Racioppi.
There is also a necessity for non-food items as well. The most popular that frequently run out quickly are laundry detergent, paper towels, coffee, jelly and mayonnaise. The pantry mainly receives donations through the 24-hour donation bin in their parking lot, but they also shop monthly using grant money and donated funds to make sure they offer enough laundry detergent for every shopper.
“Our focus has been mostly on cleaning supplies and toiletries since these are not covered by government assistance,” says Racioppi, “Shoppers also appreciate the variety of items we offer: crackers, canned meats and pet food for example. I think what makes us different from other pantries is the ease to get assistance, and that we allow people to select their own items. Even when we do home deliveries, which we do only in Verona-Cedar Grove, we provide shoppers with a grocery list of our inventory. We don’t ever just give a bag of random items to a shopper; it’s all about the personalized service.”
In addition, the church occasionally holds “Pop-Up Food Pantry Drop Off” events at the church and local grocery stores to collect food donations. A high school student organized one of these at Cedar Grove Foodtown on June 3. The Church also hosts fundraisers to help raise money for the Food Pantry. For example, their Fish & Chips Dinner took place in April.
Chrystine Gaffney, who is both a member of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit who helps with the food pantry’s publicity and a Rutgers Certified Master Gardener since the summer of 2014 for Montclair Community Farms, is a nice connection between the two entities to assist their mutual success.
“I am so happy Montclair Community Farms Coalition decided to make COHS a Mobile Farm Stand site,” says Gaffney, “We have another member of the church also involved, the director of the Montclair History Center, Jane Eliasof. She was key in getting the grant from the Episcopal Diocese of Newark for the vouchers the food pantry patrons use at the Mobile Farm Stand.
“I was thrilled the whole thing worked out – it is such a natural connection, but the vouchers really make things possible!” she says. “Our head Farmer at Montclair Community Farms, Matt Duker, used to just take our produce around to the senior centers in his own vehicle – so when the Woodworkers made the Mobile Farm stand and we received a grant for the truck, it was a terrific affirmation of our Montclair Community Farms Coalition’s mission, to feed the local community with affordable produce!”
Montclair Community Farms Coalition appreciates donations and support for the Mobile Farm Stand truck. People are welcome to give towards their Crowdrise campaign. www.crowdrise.com/giveabuckforthetruck.