NJ food pantries, slammed by Ida, start to regroup


New Jersey’s biggest food bank was badly damaged when the remnants of Hurricane Ida slammed into the state in early September, and at least 13 of its partner food pantries were destroyed or severely impacted by the latest monster storm.

The Community Food Bank of New Jersey, which serves 15 counties, suffered extensive flooding at its warehouse in Hillside, Union County, affecting its volunteer center, food-sourcing office, loading dock, dry storage area, and freezer, which became clogged with ice, said Nicole Williams, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit.

Although the organization didn’t lose any food, and continued to supply its distribution network, it has had to remove mud and debris, de-ice the floors in its freezer unit, and make significant repairs to a dock area, the roof and office floors, Williams said.

Among the many local food pantries that distribute food for CFBNJ, the organization knows of 13 that were “wiped out” or took big hits to their facilities, equipment and food stocks, she said. The food bank is working to help affected populations in areas that were hardest-hit, mostly in Union, Middlesex and Somerset counties.

In Elizabeth, the food bank on Friday held a distribution event — at which it gives food directly to those who need it, rather than using a pantry to do so — that was attended by more than 400 people, Williams said.

Already under pressure

The state’s food banks have been under increased pressure since the COVID-19 pandemic hit New Jersey 18 months ago, preventing thousands from working, and forcing many to turn to food assistance to help make ends meet.

Even as pandemic restrictions ease and more people go back to work, food bank officials predict demand will stay high for months because many people’s finances have been damaged during the pandemic, and many will continue to seek help with food.

Williams said the food bank’s parking lot often floods because it sits in a depression that was excavated to supply fill for a new runway at Newark International Airport. During Ida, the rainfall was so great that the water entered the building too, and the volume was further swollen by the overflowing of nearby Weequahic Lake.

The floodwaters inundated a loading dock, and broke one heavy door off its hinges, she said.

At the Iglesia Jesucristo Es El Señor church in Elizabeth, a food pantry that served more than 4,500 families in August alone was destroyed by the flood, said the church’s business administrator, Elena Iglesias.

She said the waters rose as high as 8 feet in the pantry, ruining freezers and refrigerators worth an estimated $80,000 to $100,000, plus 15,000 pounds of food that was spoiled, and forcing the whole church to close. Its food-pantry clients are now being served at New Beginnings Kingdom Ministries, another church in Elizabeth, with food supplied by the Community Food Bank.

‘We lost everything’

“The day the people showed up, there was nothing to give them,” she said. “We had to throw everything out, it was totally damaged. We lost everything.”

Other ruined equipment included two vans and a pickup truck that had been used to collect food, as well as a forklift, eight commercial freezers, five commercial refrigerators and a walk-in refrigerator room.

She said the church still smells “horrible” from bad meat and chicken, and that oil from the elevator had spilled out. “It’s just very nasty,” she said.

Credit: (Elena Iglesias)
Some of the damage to the food storage area at Iglesia Jesucristo Es El Señor church in Elizabeth

The church had no flood insurance because it didn’t see the need, and its requests for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency were denied because it’s not a homeowner, Iglesias said. It’s possible that wind damage will be covered by the church’s general insurance policy, Iglesias said, but she’s still waiting to hear about that.

During the storm, Iglesias said she used security cameras to watch water flooding into the church but recognized that trying to rescue any of the food-pantry equipment would have been too dangerous.

“We kept seeing the water rise but there is no way we could have gone in there,” she said. The flood was worsened by a water-main break near the church at around the same time as the storm, she said.

Demand keeps growing

The 4,573 households that were served with food in August consisted of 13,055 people, of whom 4,674 were children and 768 were seniors, she said. Since the pandemic began, the numbers have risen by 60 to 80 families every week even as the state lifted lockdown restrictions and people started to go back to work.

“I thought it was going to die down a little bit when people were trying to work but it’s still increasing,” she said.

Iglesias, who has been a member of the church for 40 years, said she was grateful that no lives were lost but said it’s still “heartbreaking” to see the devastation caused by the flood, which has no precedent in her experience at the church. She doesn’t know when it might reopen, but expressed confidence that, “with the grace of God,” it will.

Credit: (Elena Iglesias)
The kitchen at at Iglesia Jesucristo Es El Señor church in Elizabeth was badly damaged by flooding in Tropical Storm Ida.

Karen Leies, vice president of resource development at the Community Food Bank, estimated that it will cost around $1 million to repair its own facilities as well as helping its distribution partners get back up and running. She said the food bank is currently fundraising to pay for restoring all aspects of its operation.

“We plan to come in and support them, and help make them whole with repairs and refrigeration,” she said of the food bank’s distribution partners. Until that happens, the food bank will directly distribute food to people who are normally served by pantries that have been closed or damaged by the flood.

Despite its own challenges and those of its partners, the Community Food Bank is prepared to meet the needs of those who are food-insecure, she said.

“We’ll make as much food available as communities need, and if those communities see a dramatically increased need, we’re happy to be there,” she said.

Kathy Aruta, president of the North Brunswick Food Bank, a Community Food Bank distributor that operated out of a municipal building, said her offices were hit by “four feet of moving water” during the storm.

Her freezers were floating and most of her food was gone, but she had about 70 packages of food that were not hit by floodwaters, and they helped her continue distributing food with only one day’s interruption after the storm, although in a smaller quantity than before.

First, she moved to a local church, and on Tuesday moved again to a different township building, where she expects to distribute food for seven to nine months while her original premises are repaired.

Ida’s disruption means that Aruta won’t be able to serve as many of the 350 families a month that she reached before the storm, but she has no doubt that she will continue despite the profound disruption of Ida.

“I think I was in shock the first day when I walked downstairs and saw it,” she said. “And then it was, ‘You don’t have time to be distraught.’ So I had to get my stuff and get back out there.”



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