Send Hunger Packing West Windsor-Plainsboro has been helping feed families in need since 2017. This year, though, they’re doing something a little bit different.

SHuP WW-P recently launched a fundraiser to collect donations for grocery store gift cards that will be distributed to food insecure families in November and December. The group hopes to raise $20,000 for 800 $25 cards.

“We’ve had a lot of folks coming through who were not previously on free or reduced lunch, not on SNAP, now facing issues that they’ve never faced before,” said Melissa Hager, director of SHuP WW-P. “We regrouped and thought that we should have another fundraiser and do something for the end-of-the-year holidays. That’s how we’ve come to this stage for this fundraiser.”

Prior to COVID, SHuP’s main fundraiser was its Friday food bags. The group collected donations for food insecure students in grades K to 6 throughout the West Windsor-Plainsboro school district.

The bags, placed in students’ backpacks, supplement what they receive Monday through Friday through the National School Lunch Program. Hundreds of WW-P students met the income eligibility requirements set by the NSLP prior to the school lunch program; that number has increased significantly since the start of the pandemic, Hager said.

They started to adapt almost immediately.

“It was clear that we were going to have to shift our fundraising, not just for the Send Hunger Packing program, but to help everyone in the community that was in need,” Hager said. “We didn’t know what that was going to look like.”

There was some confusion at first.

“We emailed the mayor and the Department of Health and asked what the town was going to be doing when there was going to be a need for food and people were going to be in quarantine,” Hager said. “I was kind of met with, ‘What?’”

Hager said. “I was kind of met with, ‘What?’”

She checked backed in and eventually realized that SHuP’s efforts were going to shift slightly from the backpack program into other areas.

They started with a five-day food collection at Saint David the King in mid-March. The collection was limited to a small area of the church, but they had to stop in the middle of the third day due to state safety mandates.

“We pivoted again,” Hager said. “We were still delivering food through the Department of Health very cautiously—curbside dropoff to people who were quarantined. The next best thing was to have money donated. That’s when it really changed.”

As food insecurity grew, Hager came up with the idea of collecting and purchasing grocery store gift cards. They started with a small distribution list but kept raising money.

“In the summer, we had a two-week distruction of cards,” she said. “We were able to have funds for families who were coming through for bi-weekly food distribution at High School North.”

Though this is all new territory for SHuP, the group has been working to meet demand and keep up with a level of need that is rapidly changing.

“This spring really showed that we could collect enough funds to distribute grocery cards,” Hager said. “We realized that a government stimulus was not going to be given to families in time for the holidays. Even if a stimulus package is passed, it will take a while to be distributed. We have to do what we can now.

“In the past, students were in school and receiving their free or reduced lunch. Now, they might not be getting those meals. It’s a very different thing.”

SHuP has currently raised just over $2,000, about 10 percent of their goal for the grocery store gift cards. The project deadline is Nov. 16.

“We realized this isn’t going away,” Hager said. “It surprised me because I thought the state and fed government would have stepped up and done something in a positive way. The number of people who are in need just grew so much.”

West Windsor and Plainsboro, though, have stepped up, she said.

“People are supportive,” Hager said. “So that part of it is really nice. We have a really nice community.”

To donate, visit shupwwp.org or ioby.org/project/pandemic-hunger-relief-west-windsor-plainsboro.