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Special COVID Feature: COVID-19 Brings Charity to the Forefront in Princeton

By Daniel Farber Huang

June 24, 2020

This article is part of a 5-part series on Princeton, New Jersey's COVID-19 response and recovery from different perspectives, including the arts scene, businesses, charities, government and Princeton University. This article originally appeared on

Mr. Rogers’ Neighbors Kindness Project volunteers Lori Troilo (left) and

Frances Craig (right) organize packages of food and essential items on May 30.

PRINCETON, N.J. — Before COVID-19, the Princeton Mobile Food Pantry regularly served about 300 food insecure households with groceries and essential items, according to its website. Now it’s serving 400 households and growing, said Shilpa Pai, a pantry volunteer.

“I think it's important to realize there is a huge need. No community is immune. And I think it's really important for people to just be aware of that and what their needs are, that our neighbors might have these needs, and we just might not know about them,” Pai said in a telephone interview.

Pai is a pediatrician and said she sees food insecurity impacting the health of children as well as adults. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.

“How could we, as one of the richest states and the richest country in the world, have people who are food insecure? The more research I did about it, [I realized] that 20% of our children are food insecure. And now in this current path during this current pandemic, those numbers are just going to keep increasing,” Pai said.

Helping the community during COVID-19 has brought new challenges to the mobile pantry. The grassroots effort was previously known as the Princeton Food Pantry, and offered weekly food pickups at the Henry Pannell Learning Center on Clay Street in town in partnership with the Mercer Street Friends Food Bank.

In April, the pantry became independent, added Mobile to its name and began bi-weekly deliveries of food and essential items to its constituents’ homes because of physical distancing concerns according to its website.

The pantry provides food to whomever needs it, Pai said.

“We're not looking to see what their income is, what their employment level is or their citizenship status. If they ask for food we give it, no questions asked because I think it's not easy to ask for help. It's not easy to say that you are in need. And if they're coming up to us and asking us for help, no questions asked, we'll create a grocery bag for them full of fresh fruits and vegetables and proteins,” she said.

The Princeton Mobile Food Pantry set up an assembly line to pack produce, proteins

and dairy for recipients, April 30, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Princeton Mobile Food Pantry)

A new charitable startup launched in Princeton in April is the Mr. Rogers’ Neighbors Kindness Project free store, founded by local resident Blair Miller. People in need are able to receive groceries and essential items at no cost.

Operating out of the Mt. Pisgah Ame Church on Witherspoon Street on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, “neighbors can pick up essential items and meals purchased by neighbors like you,” according to the project’s Facebook page.

Miller said in a telephone interview that the project serves about 95 people each day, many of whom are from the surrounding neighborhood or from the area’s affordable housing communities. Mr. Rogers’ Neighbors also delivers to customers who do not have transportation.

Miller said Mr. Rogers’ Neighbors creates a “win-win-win” for donors, local businesses and the end users. Donors are encouraged to purchase full-price items from companies, including the local McCaffrey’s grocery store, restaurants and shops, which benefits the local businesses during these difficult times. Mr. Rogers’ Neighbors’ recipients benefit from the donations, and the donors feel good knowing they are supporting both businesses and the end users.

Ross Wishnick, chairperson of Princeton’s Human Services Department, counseled Miller when she was developing the free store business model and said the project fills an important need in the community.

“The Mr. Rogers’ Neighbors project should be existing in every town in America,” Wishnick said. The Princeton municipality is working with local groups to address the health and well-being of different segments of the community, including food insecurity and housing stability where people may need help with rent or utility bills, Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert said in a telephone interview.

Lempert said, “I feel incredibly fortunate, just unbelievably fortunate, to be in this community right now. People have really stepped up in every conceivable way. We have multiple groups addressing food insecurity problems and in really creative ways too.

“You have to pivot from daily hot meals to giving people a package of food that will last for several days so you don’t have to keep coming out and potentially getting exposed.”

Delivering a few days’ worth of food can present other challenges, including when some recipients don’t have refrigerators.

Lempert said, “If you’re handing out food that is supposed to last five days, and you’re giving them milk, eggs, chicken, as part of that and they don’t have a fridge, it causes a problem and you end up wasting a lot of food.”

She said that problem was partially addressed when Princeton University donated 15 mini-refrigerators that were left behind in dorm rooms when students had to depart the campus in March.

Lempert said one of the benefits of being a relatively small town is people’s willingness to help. Princeton’s Recreation Department pitched in by delivering the refrigerators to the families needing extra fridge space.

Local businesses are stepping up to help others in the community as well during these times.

Princeton Soup and Sandwich Company owner Lisa Ruddy said in a telephone interview that her company launched a page to pay for bagged lunches for hospital workers and community organizations. The company raised over $15,000 online and about $12,000 more through private donations she said. Each lunch cost $15 and buys a soup, full sandwich, fruit and cookie. Ruddy said she estimates the restaurant has distributed 2,000 meals around the region.

One of the charities Princeton Soup provided meals to was HomeFront in nearby Lawrenceville, Ruddy said. HomeFront seeks to help families out of the cycle of poverty through housing services, food assistance, job training and other services according to its website.

HomeFront’s community engagement coordinator, Suki Wasserman, said in a telephone interview that about one or two years ago HomeFront had virtually eliminated the need for its housing insecure families to stay in motels. But current economic pressures have again forced some people out of their homes and into motel housing.

Princeton Soup donated food to HomeFront’s “Double Helpings” initiative, Wasserman said. Double Helping provides two prepared meals per week plus some groceries to about 140 people temporarily living in motels.

Wasserman said, “Unfortunately, due to the skyrocketing cost of rent, wage stagnation and the shortage of full time jobs, motel stays have increased, especially during this crisis.”

HomeFront employees Chris Marchetti and Alexis Matejka deliver food to people

temporarily living in motels due to homelessness. (Photo courtesy of HomeFront)

Princeton Soup’s Ruddy said, “One of the responses we got back from HomeFront was that one of the women … started crying when she bit into one of our sandwiches because she'd been eating canned food for months, so that one hit me like unbelievable. So, you know, we'll try and help as much as we can as often as possible.”

HomeFront’s Wasserman said since COVID-19 started the organization has received donations in some form or other from over 60 Princeton-based businesses. HomeFront receives support from donors outside of Princeton as well.

Many people are seeking assistance from HomeFront for the first time, Wasserman said. To address growing economic pressures, HomeFront organized the Double Helping motel distribution in addition to the food distributions it already does for people in the community.

“It really is hitting everybody because a lot of jobs have been furloughed,” Wasserman said.

Princeton Soup’s Ruddy said although she is struggling to keep her business open, she realizes many others have greater challenges.

“We have the problem of sales being down significantly, but other people have bigger problems like not even be able to eat,” Ruddy said.


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