South Jersey food pantries address ‘invisible’ problem of hunger in suburbs

Residents of affluent South Jersey suburbs are facing a growing problem–one that’s not easy to guess.  A recently released study shows a 70 percent increase in food insecurity in the four counties served by the Food Bank of South Jersey.  

Many people who have never before known hunger feel shame and embarrassment as they struggle to buy food, said Val Traore, CEO of the Food Bank of South Jersey.  “A lot of it is attributed to the financial meltdown in 2008 in which many former middle-class families that lived out in the suburbs, through layoffs, through extended unemployment benefits running out, have blazed through savings and now find themselves unable to put three square meals on the table for themselves,” Traore said. “And so they are turning to food banks and food pantries to bridge that gap.”

Traore said the increased demand has strained her group’s resources.  She said some people may hesitate to admit the hunger problem in the suburbs because they may think that if it could happen to a neighbor or a friend from church, it could happen to anyone.

Dennis Chang, the director of the St. Vincent dePaul Society food pantry in Berlin, N.J., said people are shocked when they hear how many people turn to the pantry for help.”When I tell people that 200 people come in every month to our pantry, they look at me in disbelief because our area’s pretty affluent, it’s a middle-class enclave here in South Jersey,” said Chang. “There is poverty here in the suburbs, it’s just invisible.  It’s not like it is in Camden or in Philadelphia where it’s staring you right in the face.”Chang said regular donors have reduced their food donations– further straining resources.  He said patrons often use the few dollars they save by picking up a bag of food from the pantry to buy gas or fill a prescription.

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