Through the collaborative efforts of Hopewell Borough, Hopewell Township, Pennington Borough, the regional school district and dedicated volunteers, a local food pantry and delivery system has been up and running since the onset of the pandemic.
Resident families and individuals in the Hopewell Valley area who need help providing food due to financial troubles, time restraints or any other concerns are being catered to through the contactless and confidential startup.
The Hopewell Valley Mobile Food Pantry came into discussion during the third week in March. The superintendent of Hopewell Valley Regional School District reached out to local towns regarding the actions being taken to ensure children in the free and reduced lunch program would continue to receive meals while in quarantine.
It became apparent that many of these children’s families and local residents, including seniors, were in need of similar help.
“I think what the pantry showed, there is a need in our community,” HVRSD superintendent Thomas Smith said. “Whether it remains in its current location or transitions someplace else, I do think that there’s a need to support families in our community. So the future is probably that it will stay in the community.”
With the HVRSD already using a bus delivery system for its free and reduced lunch program at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, adding a community food pantry to the operation would require teamwork from the municipalities and local organizations.
Since its start, pantry volunteers have been abundant. The five-day-a-week volunteer schedule is managed on SignUpGenius and is booking through August currently.
“For me it’s just so remarkable to see the outpouring of support,” Pennington Mayor Joseph Lawver said. “There’s not one person that I have reached out to who did anything but say, ‘Yes, and what else can I do for you?’”
Daily volunteer, Heidi Olson, had retired from 34 years of teaching in October, most of her time spent at Hopewell Elementary School.
When the virus hit, she immediately started searching for ways to help her community.
Since March, the Ewing resident has signed on to volunteer five days a week. She helps collect donations, sort supplies and bag them.
Olson planned to take a year off after her retirement and then find her next passion – for now it is helping Hopewell families in need.
“I was absolutely thrilled,” Olson said. “I still am. Because I know the families in the district and many of them I know more personally because I taught their kids.”
Her years of teaching in Hopewell have shown her that there is a need for this pantry in the area.
This daily work is what she refers to as paying thanks, rather than paying it forward, to the community she is still invested in.
Teachers and district parents are among those who help by volunteering their time at the pantry. Donations have been received from the teacher’s union and district students.
“I’ve been impressed by the amount of donation and it’s been consistent for nearly four months now,” pantry volunteer Paula Hearle said. “And it’s increasing, people don’t forget, people don’t stop donating, they’re very kind. There’s a great sense of community.”
Those involved with the pantry have been part of the push to reach out to more families that haven’t utilized the food available and may be in a tough situation.
District parent Hearle said that eligibility for the pantry is simply if there is any need.
Those who may not consider themselves in need but may find themselves bogged down by at-home work, child care and other commitments due to the pandemic are all welcome to take part in the pantry’s offering.
The need doesn’t have to be financial. Contacting the pantry or showing up for their weekly pickup option comes with no questions asked – only if they reside in the Hopewell Valley area.
“It is kind of blurring those lines between education and community,” Smith said. “You got a lot of people who really love our community and want to make sure people are taken care of.”
The pantry is working out of the gym in the school district’s administrative office building, located at 425 S. Main St., Pennington. Donations are sorted, bagged and sent off for contactless delivery on district school buses.
The director of transportation for the HVRSD has been involved with organizing grocery deliveries since the free and reduced lunch program went mobile.
Heather Van Mater manages the bus routes, drivers and driver assistants to ensure a smooth and safe delivery process for the pantry.
She even takes some deliveries out herself, to some seniors in the area.
A weekly email is sent out to those on the week’s list, explaining that the deliveries will be on Wednesday from 10 a.m. to around 1 p.m.
Produce, dairy and grain donations are received from the USDA, Rolling Harvest, Gravity Hill Farms and Howell Living History Farm. When there are gaps in certain products needed for distribution, the pantry has worked with Pennington Quality Market to make up the difference.
“The overwhelming amount of products come from people, just residents who continue to fill our donation bin every day,” Lawver said. “That’s where the vast majority of stuff comes from.”
Fresh produce donations are kept refrigerated, off-site at the local high school, until delivery days – Wednesdays.
Along with food donations and packing, the “Grab and Go” in-person pickup option, added to the pantry’s functions in late May, is also run at HVRSD administration building.
The pickup option is held on Thursdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.
“We started the ‘Grab and Go’ so that other members in the community that we know could benefit from the food can just pull up to the board office and all we do is ask them if they live in Hopewell Valley, that’s their only requirement,” Olson said.
“Folks should look at it really as a community who wants to support others, period,” Smith said. “And that’s it. There’s no judgement, no questions, nothing. It’s just making sure that people are being supported, particularly in this time. And then moving forward we want it to continue.”
A June 18 update on the pantry’s GoFundMe page shared that the school bus deliveries, special deliveries and “Grab and Go” helped feed 72 families in Hopewell Valley that week. This marks a 70% increase from just three weeks prior, according to Lawver.
The families received 191 bags of groceries and 72 boxes of produce. Additionally, the pantry sent produce to HomeFront, in Lawrence, and continued sharing excess produce with Ewing Helping Hands, another startup created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Hopewell Council of Churches is also given key products and produce, which they use to prepare meals two to three times a week for about 15 seniors.
The pantry is hoping to help more families in need through social media, word of mouth and further communication with local groups. Contacting churches and the Hopewell Valley Municipal Alliance are ways the pantry has tried to expand its reach.
After a communication push in late May, an additional 20 to 25 families were added to the list of those receiving confidential aide.
Mayors from Pennington, Hopewell Borough, Hopewell Township, administrators from each town and president of HVRSD Board of Education were brought together to figure out the logistics of running a multi-town mobile pantry.
The district Board of Education president Deborah Linthorst has been working as an unofficial dispatcher. She is the point of contact for those inquiring about the pantry and manages social media.
Pennington Mayor Lawver has played a large role since the idea for the pantry was thought up. He continues to manage volunteers and other efforts to ensure the pantry is helping as many people as possible.
Financial donations are handled in part through the pantry’s partnership with the local YMCA. The invaluable aide that the nonprofit offers also includes securing food donations.
A GoFundMe page was created for the pantry. As of June 29, it has raised over $20,000, which is pledged 100% to helping Hopewell Valley families in need.
“It’s just a sign of that we live in a really lovely community,” pantry volunteer Hearle said. “And people don’t forget, everybody’s having their hardships, but they’re not forgetting that people need help.”
For more information on the Hopewell Valley Mobile Food Pantry, visit the official Facebook page. Contact the pantry via email HVMobileFoodPantry@gmail.com or call (609) 403-0327.