RAISING AWARENESS OF HUNGER by Elaine Durbach
A big green bus brings home the message of need.
You may have noticed earlier this year a crop of bright green signs that sprouted on the edge of gardens in the Maplewood-South Orange area. They were publicizing the “Green Bean Gala.” The event, a fundraiser for MEND, has just happened but the mission those signs highlighted – supporting hunger relief – is very much an ongoing concern.
MEND – Meeting Emergency Needs with Dignity – has been tackling that challenge since 1980. That’s when a team of people from various houses of worship across Essex County got together with the goal of combatting hunger more effectively and in a way that respected the vulnerability of those in need.
Originally, as the name suggests, they focused on crises. But its executive director Robin Peacock explains that very soon they realized that the issue went beyond emergencies. “The struggles people face are not short-term; they’re ongoing,” she says.
Working from office space provided by the Archdiocese of Newark and under the auspices of its social services arm, Catholic Charities, MEND teamed up with government agencies and other organizations to ensure the supply of packaged, nutritious food to food pantries throughout the area. In recent years it has striven to provide more fresh items – fruits and vegetables as well as meat and dairy products. It also provides non-food items like diapers and women’s hygiene products.
Andy Ball and Kathleen DiChiaro were the first coordinators. When DiChiaro left to establish the Community Foodbank of New Jersey, Sharon Reilly-Tobin took over and remained in the role for 33 years.
“Why Green Bean?” inquiring minds asked, seeing all those signs. The question delights Peacock, whose job includes raising the organization’s profile.
It refers to the big school bus donated to MEND by Ed Danberry, the owner of Group One Investments and painted with a bright green design by volunteer Henry Conrad Poor. “We were trying to work out what to call it, and our board chairman Jamie Anthony said, ‘Green Bean.’ And that was it!” she recalls.
The vehicle, driven at the moment by Anthony himself, isn’t just a good-looker; it’s also very useful in transporting MEND’s stock of purchased and donated food, and other supplies, to the 19 food pantries and shelters it currently serves.
Peacock doesn’t speak readily about herself, but she is forthright about why MEND’s commitment to provide tactful, carefully-directed help resonates with her. Early in her life, her father exited the picture and her mother was left struggling to earn a living and care for her family. She got on her feet, studying and working, but not without enduring a tough phase when food stamps (now replaced by debit cards) provided a much-appreciated lifeline.
Peacock joined the MEND team in 2015. A tax lawyer by profession, she had given up her work in New York City to be home with her three sons, Ben, Henry and Teddy, now 17, 13 and 10. With them in school and more time on her hands, she got involved with various worthy causes. She was attracted by MEND’s mission and offered her services as a grant writer. When Reilly-Tobin left last year, Peacock was asked to become executive director, a supposedly part-time role that clearly has many dimensions.
In a single day, she says, her duties might take her from writing thank-you letters and making calls to donors, to contacting potential funders, calling food pantry managers to check on their needs, doing follow-up reports and coordinating deliveries. Or she might be covered in mud, out in the field with volunteers, harvesting vegetables for MEND at America’s Grow-a-Row, the farm in Pittstown that is a major fresh produce supplier.
“I enjoy it more than anything I’ve ever done before,” she declares. The cherry on top is the fellowship. “The people who run the pantries are just the kindest, most warm-hearted people.”
As it was from the start, a crucial part of MEND’s mission is to help those in need in a way that respects their sensitivities and preferences. There is also a concerted effort to identify what products are wanted in each area. For some it might be baby food; in another fresh produce might be in high demand. Some might want rice and beans where others prefer pasta. And all of this needs to be sorted, packed, loaded into the Green Bean and delivered.
Toni Furtunato’s story, cited on MEND’s website, exemplifies what so many people face. The 56-year-old West Orange resident, injured and unable to work, had gotten by with disability and worker’s compensation, and – as she said – living frugally and clipping coupons. But with medical bills mounting, she found herself without enough money for groceries. She made the very tough decision to visit the food pantry at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in West Orange.
“I still get very choked up,” she said. “It took a lot to be able to walk through the doors the first time. I’m the one who used to say, ‘They’re having a rough time. How can I help?’ Now I need it.”
As MEND stresses, part of its mission is to help clients with health issues have access to the fresh foods they need. Fortunato, who needs a low sodium diet, was able to get the vegetables and fruits her doctor recommends but that she couldn’t afford on her own.
Asked what she values most about MEND, Martha Curry, MEND Advisory Board member from the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church Food Pantry, says, “The camaraderie of the people, and the genuine concern for the individuals receiving the food.”
As Yahaira Rodriguez, MEND Advisory Board member from the United Community Corporation Food Pantry in Newark, adds, “MEND is more than a program; it’s a family.”
The organization draws on experts and partnerships to enhance its effectiveness. For guidance on which foods would best suit its goals, it teamed up for the past two years with the NJ Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Peacock says, “For this year, we are also partnering with students from Montclair State University on a service learning project to help expand our nutrition programming even further.” The Junior League of Short Hills raised the funds needed to alter and equip the bus. And over 50 volunteers help make it all happen, some working regularly, others coming on board for special projects.
If you would like to find out more or volunteer, call Peacock at 862-250-5216, or go to mendnj.org.
Elaine Durbach is a Maplewood resident, and a journalist, author and editor.