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Churches partner to revive town's food pantry

Mt. Olive Pantry
Raymond Bonker

In the early 2000’s during a Vestry meeting here at Christ Church in Budd Lake, one of our members asked us to conduct a thought experiment. She asked “What would happen if our church did not exist anymore? Would anyone in our community notice?” Her question prompted plenty of discussion and soul-searching by the other Vestry members. During the conversation she pushed for the creation of a food pantry within our church. As much as the Vestry wanted to agree, they were also wary of taking on a commitment that seemed too big for our small church to sustain.

The immediate conversation ended, but we agreed to start collecting canned goods at the entrance of our church. Every couple of months we would bring these donations to the Mt. Olive municipal building, site of our local government, and they were placed inside a locked room.

Several years later, our priest at the time, the Rev. Sonia Waters, took a few church members along to volunteer at the municipal building food pantry. Most of their time was spent reviewing the expiration dates on the donated items and throwing away the outdated ones. It became readily apparent that the town food pantry was operating in name only. There was no government officer in charge, the food remained behind a locked door, and distribution was ad-hoc at best. For our church volunteers, it was discouraging.

Fortunately, it also became discouraging to the Mayor of Mt. Olive. Recognizing their own lack of performance, in 2013 Mayor Rob Greenbaum sought out the Mt. Olive Clergy Association (MOCA), consisting of several churches and a synagogue within our town. The Mayor offered to transfer the food pantry, along with all the food and the shelving, to MOCA if the organization would take over the operation.

The Rev. Waters partnered with Pastor Matthew Jones, the leader of the Mt. Olive Mountaintop evangelical church, to create a new non-profit organization called Partners In Compassion (PIC) which would operate the pantry. At the same time, our Vestry voted in 2014 to host this new pantry in our church building by dedicating one downstairs classroom for its use. The Township worked with PIC to get the shelves installed, and the pantry was dedicated in Spring 2014 in a ceremony attended by representatives from all the MOCA churches and the synagogue.

For the first time, the pantry now had dedicated volunteers and published hours of operation. And as a result, the pantry has grown considerably. Staffed primarily with volunteers from both our church and the Mountaintop church, the pantry has expanded its footprint every year since it opened. At least half a dozen freezers and refrigerators have been installed to widen the offerings from just non-perishable foods to include frozen meats and fresh vegetables, many of which are donated by local growers. Two additional classrooms have also been dedicated to the pantry as the volume of food items continues to increase. Our church also decided to install air conditioning downstairs for the first time, given the increasing usage of the space. Over time, the pantry hours were extended from two days per week to three, including a Saturday morning. According to Sue Morse, the head of operations for the pantry, approximately 150 families are now registered to use the pantry on a monthly basis.

The answer to the thought experiment posed to our Vestry from many years ago is now an emphatic YES! The community would certainly notice if our church suddenly failed to exist. Although we were too small to run a pantry on our own, with the partnership created under MOCA, along with the recognition by our local government that the faith community would be a better home for the pantry, we have collectively turned away from those locked doors in the municipal building to a thriving enterprise helping to feed the hungry families of Mt. Olive. Through Partners In Compassion, the clergy association, the municipal government and our small church have “gone local” together in ways none of us could have gone alone.