By Lauren Wanko
At the Community FoodBank of New Jersey’s Southern Branch, volunteers work to keep up with the demand — a demand that’s increased 35 to 40 percent in their Atlantic County pantries since the Atlantic Club Casino Hotel closed in January, leaving thousands without work.
“The fact that 1,600 people all at the same time got laid off had a dramatic impact on the emergency food situation here,” explained Community FoodBank Southern Branch Executive Director Evelyn Benton.
The day the casino shut down, the food bank’s food stamp outreach staffer held a meeting for casino employees on federal assistance programs and applications. Six hundred people showed up.
“You don’t get unemployment benefits right away, so if you were depending on your tips, it can be difficult,” Benton said.
Volunteer and former casino worker Kris Heim sympathizes with former Atlantic Club employees.
“It’s tough. You’ve been here for a long time and now all of a sudden you have to get unemployment,” Heim said.
“All of a sudden it just blew out of proportion with the volume of people and the number of people out of work,” said Kenneth Johnson
The Community FoodBank of New Jersey’s Southern Branch distributes food to 250 agencies like emergency food pantries and homeless shelters.
Demand for food is up, but donations are down this year — off by almost 100,000 pounds of food compared to 2013.
“I think it’s been a challenging year for everyone, especially locally and we depend on local donations. If we just had 1,600 people laid off, they’re not gonna be able to give as they used to. I think it’s really the local economy that’s affecting this contributions,” Benton said.
Absecon resident Sal Fornarotto used to volunteer at the food bank. Now he’s a client.
“As a volunteer, I knew what the people were going through, but now I see myself going through the same thing so it’s hard,” Fornarotto said.
Fornarotto calls the food bank’s pantry a lifesaver. A cart full of food will support his family for the week.
“It’s very hard because the increases in the income are very little and at my age you can’t go to work. No one will hire you,” said Fornarotto.
“It’s a constant struggle, it really is a constant struggle, but it’s not something you give up. We have to do the best we can on what we do on a daily basis to keep food into those that need it most,” Benton said.
Benton says the food bank is always in need of donations and volunteers. And she’ll continue to promote food drives to fill the empty shelves.