Dear People and Friends of the Diocese of New Jersey,
Our churches know how to feed people! I’m not talking merely about the incredible coffee hours put on by many of our congregations after Sunday worship, or even the potluck suppers or fellowship dinners that are an essential part of the church community’s life in so many places. No, I’m referring to the phenomenal number of our congregations that engage in feeding ministries either by sponsoring a food pantry or working in collaboration with other church partners in supporting a local pantry, or in offering hot meals to community guests who need this service, or in providing direct food assistance in some other way. It’s amazing! It’s also vital.
According to the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, each day, about 650,000 New Jerseyans are food insecure. Of these, approximately 175,000 are children. Table to Table—a not-for-profit agency that operates in Northern New Jersey—estimates the number is higher, suggesting that almost 2 million New Jerseyans are food insecure, with one-third of these being children. Either way, it is an enormous problem, especially when you consider that New Jersey is among the wealthiest states in the country.
This past week, I had a chance to engage with the issue of food insecurity in New Jersey in two very special ways.
On Monday, the interfaith New Jersey Coalition of Religious Leaders, of which I am a part, met at the Ukrainian Cultural Center in Somerset. I was joined by The Reverend Scott Russell, our Chaplain at Canterbury House of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, who is also our Interfaith and Ecumenical Officer.
After a warm and poignant greeting from our host, Archbishop Daniel of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, who offered those gathered a personal perspective on the war in Ukraine, including sharing with it has been like for his mother, a resident of Kyiv. It was a sober reminder that war is traumatizing and injuring real people each and every day.
Following Archbishop Daniel’s greeting and remarks, the group heard a panel presentation on food insecurity led by high-level persons engaged in this work in New Jersey. Among them was Mark Dinglasan, Director of the New Jersey Office of Food Security Advocate, a unique position that might be designated New Jersey’s “food czar.” He has been appointed by Governor Murphy to coordinate the various efforts being made in the state. Dinglasan observed, “We have gone too long fighting food insecurity instead of providing for true food security.” I appreciated that distinction. Lisa Pitz, Director of Food Action/Hunger Free New Jersey, an advocacy agency that addresses policy issues at the federal, state and local levels, stated that the objective of food security “is for all New Jersey residents to have access to healthy food every day.”
It is encouraging to see a shift in much of society’s response to food insecurity today. Recognizing that “food insecurity” can happen to individuals and families “in a heartbeat” (for example, when a pandemic shuts down a significant part of the job market), there is a much greater sensitivity about those who require support when times are difficult.
Carlos Rodriguez, President and CEO of Community Food Bank of New Jersey told us that his organization works with about 800 feeding programs in the state. Of that, he reported, 60 percent are faith-based. Of course, I know that many of our churches, perhaps even most of our churches, in the Diocese of New Jersey are included in that number or work with other organizations who are included in it.
More and more organizations and agencies providing food assistance are taking extra steps to be sure that those who come to them are treated with dignity, including having choice and agency to receive food that is healthy, culturally appropriate, and food they actually want. It should be observed that our own Diocesan Jubilee Officer, Canon Clara Gregory has been preaching the message of dignity and respect for those being served, and helping churches, including Trinity Cathedral, live into it for a long time.
On Tuesday, I was privileged to see this kind of approach in action when I was invited by Catherine Ambos of Christ Church, New Brunswick, to be part of the official opening and “ribbon-cutting” of the official opening and “ribbon-cutting” of the Choice Food and Resource Center at Unity Square. This ministry is a community collaboration involving Catholic Charities of Metuchen, Christ Church, New Brunswick, Emmanuel Lutheran Church of New Brunswick, the City of New Brunswick and other neighborhood partners. Christ Church, New Brunswick applied for, and received a grant in excess of $14,000 from Episcopal Community Services of the Diocese of New Jersey as a part of its investment in this vital community program. ECS-NJ Executive Director, Trisha Thorme was also present for this opening, as was Diocese of New Jersey Canon for Communications Steve Welch.
As one source reported, “The Choice Food Resource Center seeks to emulate the typical shopping experience by giving those facing food insecurity the opportunity to handpick their own groceries and move at their own pace.”
The Choice Food Resource Center is located in a converted firehouse that has been upgraded and designed to meet this and many other community needs. As a news story about the ministry declares, “The Choice Food Resource Center at Unity Center aims to nourish body and souls.” Amen. It seems to me that is the work of Christ’s kingdom. I’m thankful so many of our faithful in the diocese of New Jersey have the same aim for our neighbors who require this. Thank you for that.
Blessings and peace.
The Right Rev. William H. Stokes
Bishop of New Jersey