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Christ Church, Teaneck's food pantry faces an explosion of need

Volunteers in the food "assembly line" at Christ Church, Teaneck, filling boxes for the food pantry. MICHELLE WHITE PHOTO
Nina Nicholson
Volunteers in the food "assembly line" at Christ Church, Teaneck, filling boxes for the food pantry. MICHELLE WHITE PHOTO

When the food pantry that's now at Christ Church, Teaneck began, even one of its founders admits it got off to a slow start.

“It didn't take off like gangbusters but it did take off to some degree, and we developed a clientele,” said Mary Sue Kaplow of the food pantry she helped launch in the late 1990s at the former St. Mary’s, Ridgefield Park.

When St. Mary’s closed a couple of years later, Kaplow went to Christ Church and so did the food pantry. At that time, she said the pantry was open two Saturdays a month, and estimates it eventually grew to support between 50 and 80 people a month.

“We're in an isolated area – we're in very much of a residential area – so people don't just see us. We're a little bit of an invisible church in a largely Orthodox Jewish neighborhood, so it's tricky to get people to come to us,” she said.

“Mary Sue did a fine job all these years of maintaining a bunch of donors,” said the Rev. Dr. Michelle “Chellie” White, Vicar at Christ Church. Supporters of their food pantry over the years have included the Episcopal churches of St. Andrew’s, Harrington Park; St. Peter’s, Essex Fells; and St. James', Ridgefield; as well as Grace Lutheran Church and St. Mark's Syrian Orthodox Cathedral, both in Teaneck, and Ridgewood Montessori School in Paramus.

White added, “We're down the street from Whittier Elementary School and a lot of our guests come from that school where 30% of the kids are food insecure, so we started working with the Center for Food Action to do snack packs." (See Churches and neighbors join to address weekend hunger among local school children from October 2016.)

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Christ Church food pantry is now open every Saturday and challenged to support a great many more people.

“Two Saturdays ago we were at about 70 [people], and then it grew to 90, and then it grew to a 170 people last Saturday [May 30] so I'm expecting over 200 this Saturday [June 6]. There are people coming from 15 different towns,” said White.

“Nobody wants to be on a food line. You don't have to prove that you're hungry – I don't have a hungry meter check you. If you say you're hungry, you are,” she added.

As well as the increased need for food, the food pantry is being asked to support a new need: diapers.

“We’re finding out the people need diapers for their babies, which we did not necessarily have before because we're getting a different clientele now, so that has changed the picture of our pantry to some degree,” said Kaplow. She sees this as a good thing: “We're really focusing and reaching out to people who really need our services.”

White said, “The outpouring of support from the clergy has been phenomenal after that Zoom call with the bishop,” at which White appealed to her fellow clergy for assistance.

Noting that that WIC (the Women, Infants and Children Federal assistance program) does not provide funds for diapers, White named in particular the Rev. Margaret Otterburn of Messiah, Chester, who “came down with a whole truckload of diapers” from North Porch.

Lay people, as well as clergy, have risen to the call. “As a matter of fact, someone just called from Allendale,” White said. “They got their stimulus check and they felt compelled that people need to eat with it because they eat every day, so they're sending us their stimulus check, and that's amazing!”

Christ Church has had to restructure how their food pantry operates. “We've had to set up cones and barriers to direct the traffic into the parking lot of the church,” said White. “We've taken over the nave so that when food comes in we store it in the back of the nave,” instead of the undercroft, which had required volunteers to carry bags of food up and down stairs.

“It looks like a Ford Motor Company assembly line,” she continued. “The volunteers fill the boxes, the boxes are sent through, we pick up diapers, the people drive around, we plop it into their trunks and then they drive away.

“The people are so emotional when they pick the stuff up,” White said, adding that many are essential service providers. They’re even supporting the church’s garbage collector: “The guy who picks up our garbage takes food from the pantry every time he comes to pick up the garbage.”

White had one final message for readers.

“If you write anything, please remind us all that we are members of the body of Christ, and poor people can't be amputated from that body. We have to take care of folks.”

The Diocese of Newark has set up online giving to support the diocese’s food pantries. Simply visit and go to Area of Greatest Need: Food Pantries (second item from the top). Donations made from June 10 through June 23, 2020 will go to the food pantry at Christ Church, Teaneck.