By Lauren Wanko
Community FoodBank of New Jersey Founder Kathleen DiChiara looks up at shelves of food and looks back on more than 40 years of serving those most in need.
“There were days I cried, and the days that I cried were when I was with people who had so little to eat,” she said.
It started in the mid-1970s, out of the back of her station wagon. She’d load it up with food and deliver it to the hungry.
“I wasn’t at that point planning to start a food bank. That wasn’t even a word I knew,” DiChiara said.
By the early ’80s, that’s what happened — she founded the Community FoodBank of New Jersey.
“There was food being wasted. At the same time there was great want and when you can take one problem to address another, you’re way ahead of the game,” she explained.
DiChiara says the need has grown tremendously over the past 40 years.
Feeding America’s latest report indicates more than 1.1 million — 12.4 percent of people in New Jersey — are food insecure. The rate is 18.3 percent for children.
When she thinks back to the ’70s, she says she couldn’t have predicted the need growing this much. Why? “It’s a number of things. Everyone in New Jersey understands the high cost of housing. That is taking up a much bigger bite of those with the lowest incomes,” DiChiara said.
The reduction in SNAP benefits and the fact that wages aren’t keeping up with rising costs also add to the growing demand for food assistance, says DiChiara.
When asked for some solutions, she said, “I wish I had them all, but hunger is a symptom of poverty and that is complex and we need to attack that in many ways, in terms of better education, opportunity for jobs, better wages for employees.”
Over the years, the Community FoodBank of New Jersey’s staff and tens of thousands of volunteers have worked toward many of those solutions.
Last year the Community FoodBank of New Jersey distributed a record — more than 43 million pounds of food from its Hillside headquarters and from its Southern Branch in Egg Harbor Township. In addition, the food bank also offers job training, two thrift stores and school supplies.
As DiChiara looks toward her retirement in June, she hopes her story and the stories of those facing hunger every day throughout the state will inspire others to give back.
“Statistics on the hungry are simply numbers with the tears wiped away. These are people worth shedding tears over,” she said.
Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multi-platform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by The JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.