This New Jersey Food Pantry Puts a Twist on the Traditional Model

For most charitable organizations, the model is the same: donors give money and the organization uses those donations to provide material assistance or services to their clients. The Highland Park Community Food Pantry (HPCFP) in New Jersey has put a twist on the traditional model and manages to not only provide food for their clients, but also helps support local farmers and minimize food waste at the local farmer’s market.

Highland Park is known for its small-town appeal, a walkable downtown area and a commitment to social justice. Right over the bridge from Rutgers University, its residents and leaders take a commitment to bettering the world more seriously than most other American towns. The food pantry has close to 60 volunteers, including those who administer its daily and administrative tasks. These volunteers, and the donors who fund their work, are passionate about making the borough a better place to live and work for everyone, including those less fortunate.

The food pantry is housed in the Highland Park Senior/Youth Center on 6th Avenue in the center of downtown Highland Park. Several years ago, members of the Food Pantry’s executive committee of volunteers had an idea: How could the Pantry get the weekly Farmer’s Market next-door involved in its work?

Representatives from the Food Pantry teamed up with Main Street Highland Park, an active nonprofit community and economic development organization dedicated just to work within borough, which is less than two square miles across, to figure out how. The arrangement with the Food Pantry evolved over time and has become beneficial for clients, donors, farmers market vendors and the local economy.

Donations come to the Food Pantry through several avenues: individual contributions made on a monthly basis, one-time gifts made after a death or in honor of a birthday and fundraising drives at the local Stop & Shop supermarket. That money is spent to buy nonperishable items for all of the clients and on “specialty items” like meats and cheeses, for which there are governmental requirements in order to be eligible. Another use for these donations has come in the form of vouchers for the Food Pantry’s clients at the farmer’s market.

From May to December, the Highland Park Farmer’s Market brings together local farmers as well as vendors who sell items as varied as bread, pickles, meats and cheeses, and even a homemade dog treats stand. Due to their proximity to the farmer’s market and their full-time hours, Main Street Highland Park’s employees act as a go-between for the Food Pantry, Market vendors and the clients.

At the beginning of the season, Main Street is given a nest egg of money by the Food Pantry’s staff. That nest egg pays for vouchers, which Food Pantry clients receive weekly. All of farmer’s market vendors accept the vouchers. At the end of the day, Main Street Highland Park employees collect the vouchers and immediately pay vendors in cash. Vendors like working with the Food Pantry for this reason, as the clients are another source of income they might not have otherwise had.

After the market closes for the day, vendors have an opportunity to give back as well. Food Pantry clients participate in what is known as the “gleaning.” Farmers and vendors set aside items they don’t want to bring back with them and instead donate them to the Pantry’s clients. They might be slightly bruised tomatoes, ugly carrots or an over-abundance of corn; but at the end of the market, there are items that would have otherwise gone in a nearby dumpster. Half an hour before the close of the market, Food Pantry volunteers hand out bins to vendors to donate items at the end of the day.

According to David and Monica May, the market’s co-captains, some vendors even go out of their way to donate some of their goods. David told Opportunity Lives how one vendor, Baker’s Bounty, often fill their donation bin within minutes, while their display table of items for sale remains unchanged. He suspects that Baker’s Bounty bakes extra bread with the intention of donating every week. Other vendors, like Von Thun Farms, have during the peak of the summer season brought an additional barrel of food to donate along with the produce they plan to sell that day.

With limited resources, the Highland Park Community Food Pantry is able to do a great deal of good for those less fortunate and for the greater community. The Pantry’s donors know that their contributions well-spent and that the food purchased for the Pantry’s clients feeds people in need and the local economy. It’s a model for other charities — especially other food pantries — to emulate nationwide.

Bethany Mandel is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @bethanyshondark.