New Jersey community kitchens at the forefront of the hunger crisis

When most people conjure up an image of a soup kitchen, they think in nondescript terms – low lighting, quiet voices and stark rooms. Many people are surprised to find that the overwhelming majority of soup kitchens – particularly in New Jersey – are vibrant, bustling hubs of activity, serving as community resource centers for a wide cross-section of people.

Food is a transformative entry point for so many of our neighbors in need, but hunger never exists in a vacuum.

After a warm winter, where traditional day work like snow removal was nonexistent, and a spring that heralded the end of many emergency pandemic programs, even working families are struggling to make ends meet. Stagnant wages, the lack of affordable housing and rising consumer costs are further compounding the issue.

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Today, statistics show that 100% of counties across America have food insecurity. That means that there is a 100% chance that one of the 53 million people in America who are hungry lives in your community.

New Jersey’s soup kitchens are at the forefront of this crisis, meeting the increasing need with dignity as well as a comprehensive approach to solving a problem impacting our entire nation.

Today’s soup kitchens recognize that hunger is complicated. We see that food insecurity is merely a symptom of a greater problem, namely poverty, and we know what works. People come to our dining room first for nourishment, and that’s where they connect with our other programs and services — like case management, education, job assistance, ID services and creative arts — that help people succeed. Often, food is the first step along the path to self-sufficiency, and soup kitchens ensure that everyone has access to the tools they need to improve their quality of life.

In reality, this has been the soup kitchen model all along. We have always thought “big” in our response to food insecurity, knowing that the key to solving hunger rests with solving problems like affordable housing, medical and mental healthcare, workforce preparedness and access to education.

We welcome people with a “no questions asked” philosophy. And we measure our success not in the number of meals that we serve but by the number of people who no longer need our services.

Our impact is significant, not just to individuals but to our local economies as well. When people can reduce the cost of food — by accessing meals at one of our dining rooms, by advancing their education, by getting a job — they have funds to reinvest back into our communities, the sustenance they need to excel at work and school, and the resources required to afford things like housing and transportation.

We are grateful that the State of New Jersey is leading the way in many respects. Together, our state’s soup kitchens have banded together to think collaboratively and share resources in our approach to fighting hunger.

In addition, New Jersey legislators have made big moves to help support those facing food insecurity. As federal emergency pandemic benefits were winding down, including benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), New Jersey passed a law that guarantees families a minimum of $95 per month in SNAP benefits. As of March, the federally established minimum for SNAP benefits is just $23. New Jersey was the first state to raise SNAP benefits for residents. Nearly a half dozen other states are currently working to pass similar measures.

Furthermore, New Jersey has created an Office of the Food Security Advocate and named Mark Dinglasan its Director. The first person to fill the newly-created role, Dinglasan was appointed in August of 2022 by Governor Phil Murphy. Dinglasan formerly served as Executive Director of CUMAC, one of the largest anti-hunger organizations in Passaic County.

But we know there is more work to do. In the same way that these issues have converged to make it tougher for those in our community, so, too, has it impacted our soup kitchens. The costs to provide our programs and services – particularly food – have risen dramatically while the numbers we serve continue to rise. We are all faced with daily decisions to try to make the most of a dollar, while knowing that the need within our communities continues to increase at an alarming rate.

Hunger doesn’t take a summer break. This month, please consider lending your support to your community soup kitchen. Volunteer, run a donation drive or find out how you can lend your voice to the fight against hunger. Perhaps, most importantly, consider a financial donation, so that we can continue to make an impact on those who need us.

New Jersey’s soup kitchens are leading the way. We are providing a holistic approach to our fight against hunger, particularly in our ability to offer a one-stop resource hub to those seeking aid. We not only provide a meal, we provide our community with the tools they need to thrive. With your help, we can continue to nourish the body, mind and soul while working to drive out hunger and its underlying causes. Thank you for your support!

The New Jersey Community Kitchen Coalition is a cohort of New Jersey’s soup kitchens formed to create a holistic approach to food insecurity across the state.

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