The Rev. Rod Perez-Vega says the food pantry at St. John’s Church in Dover, where he is rector, didn’t used to be as big as it is now. “Usually our traffic would be, let's say 200 to 250 people in a quarter.”
That abruptly changed the week of March 16. In the next three weeks, St. John’s provided food to more than 400 people. Perez-Vega attributes the increase to people losing their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Formerly open three days a week, St. John’s food pantry tried for a while to open its doors six days, Monday through Saturday from 10 AM to 1 PM, but found this unsustainable. The problem was not the availability of food; it was that most of St. John’s members who volunteer at the food pantry are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19.
“I had to make a decision,” said Perez-Vega. “As much as they wanted to [volunteer], I said no you can't.” A lack of volunteers who could be safely deployed also forced the parish to close its Community Closet entirely.
Fortunately, St. John’s is in relationship with other organizations they can tap for volunteers. One of those is Zufall Health Center, with which St. John’s partnered in 2019 to launch a successful Summer Food Program for children who need nutrition assistance when school is not in session. This program was featured in the Mission Minutes at the 2020 Convention.
Students in the dietary department at a local college are also volunteering at the food pantry. And when a local Roman Catholic church had to close its food pantry, one of their volunteers came to Perez-Vega and asked, “I hear that you’re open – can I come work here?”
“Absolutely,” he told her. “And she's great, she knows her thing really well, so she has been an incredible addition.”
Currently, St. John’s is managing to keep its food pantry open four days a week and provide food to about 150 to 180 people, the same number it supported each week when it was open six days.
To maintain physical distancing and other safety measures, only two to three volunteers work at the food pantry at the same time. People seeking food enter the church one at a time, tell the volunteers how many people are in their household, and then wait in a designated place while the volunteers prepare a box of food for them. Volunteers and guests are all required to wear masks.
In addition, St. John’s prepares boxes of food to be delivered to sick people quarantined at home. “Zufall has a list of patients, so we prepare the boxes and a Zufall volunteer comes and gets it.”
Perez-Vega has also delivered boxes of food to several people who have called the food pantry from home quarantine. “Basically, we drop it at the front door or someplace and we call in and they come out and get it.”
The local community is keeping them well supplied with donations of food to distribute. “The Interfaith Food Pantry has been very gracious in delivering food to us. We've gotten donations from the Police Benevolent Association, we've gathered in donations from the American Legion, we had donations from the engineering department and inspection department from the town. People from the engineering department went to Costco and bought a whole bunch of stuff. Two of the people who are running for office statewide, as part of their campaign had food drives and they brought all the food to us. So, it's been a community effort.”
Perez-Vega has a good relationship with the clergy at Dover’s First United Methodist Church and Trinity Lutheran Church, both of which also have food pantries, and the three of them coordinate resources if one food pantry has a surplus or shortage.
“Sometimes I have a donation and the person who is making the donation is donating rice, and I have tons of rice, so I call the other pastors and ask,‘
‘How are you doing on rice?’
‘I need rice, what do you need?’
‘Well, I don't have the long shelf-life milk, the Parmalat.’
‘OK, I'll send you two cases of milk.’
‘OK, I'll send you two cases of rice.’
“So that's a great relationship to have.”
Perez-Vega credits regular posts on St. John’s Facebook page about the food pantry’s activities with generating awareness – and donations – among their neighbors. “Sometimes I open the mail and I have a check from somebody that I don't know – ‘We see what you've been doing, so here's a check.’
“People call me and say, ‘What do you need?’ and they go out and shop for it. I don't have to go out and do any shopping.”
The only food shopping Perez-Vega does is right across the street from St. John’s, at the Latino American Supermarket, where he buys chicken to add to the non-perishable food offerings.
“We had Home Depot donate a freezer chest, and what that allows us to do is, with funds that were designated for the food pantry, we purchase chickens. Their butcher puts the chickens in bags and they just walk them across the street, and we put them in the freezer. We're giving them business and they're helping the community also because they're giving us a special price.
“So, along with the regular offering, we've been able to offer also a little bit of meat to the users of the food pantry.”
There are two ways you can help support St. John’s food pantry:
If you’re not at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19, they would welcome you as a volunteer.
Monetary donations are also welcome. Donations by check should be made out to St. John's Church with "Food Pantry" in the memo line, and mailed to St. John's Church, 11 South Bergen Street, Dover, NJ 07801.