Hunger Heroes: Taking Action in NJ

As September comes to a close, so does Hunger Action Month. But that doesn’t mean that the action should stop! The effort to raise awareness of the problems local communities face in providing healthy food to its disadvantaged residents continues. In honor of these efforts, Jersey Bites caught up with a few Hunger Heroes, individuals who work with local organizations to ensure food access.

SOVEN BERY started volunteering with his family at the Community FoodBank of New Jersey (CFBNJ) as a high school sophomore. He attended the first Teen Hunger Institute, in 2012, and became a liaison between the food bank and his school, Newark Academy. He organized two food drives in front of his local A&P. In 2013, he collected 356 pounds of food; this year, he collected 150 pounds of food. He will hold this year’s drive on Sunday, October 5.

VINCENT MCMAHON’s school volunteers with individual students and as a group at CFBNJ several times a year, as well as at their many off-site events. He has hosted three Teen Hunger Summits, each for between 50 and 100 teens and their class advisors, the past three years. The next Summit is scheduled for December 9.

KIMBERLY MEYERSON is the library media specialist at North Boulevard School in Pequannock. She has coordinated the “Read to Feed” reading marathon for her school for the past four years for Read Across America Day. Students collect monetary and food donations from the community and hold a 13-hour reading marathon over one school day during Read Across America week. Parents, CFB staff and local officials are guest readers have raised nearly $3,000 over the years plus food donations for CFBNJ and the Pequannock Town Pantry.

JERSEY BITES: How did you get into your volunteer work?

BERY: In my freshman year of high school my dad would take me to the New Jersey Community FoodBank each Saturday morning in order to complete my school’s volunteer requirements. However, I quickly fell in love with volunteering at the CFBNJ and the work they were doing. One day, someone who noticed my dedication asked me if I wanted to apply to the Teen Hunger Institute. During the Institute, myself and other interested students spent the week learning about food insecurity in our area and volunteering at a community garden in Hillside, a Senior Citizen living facility in Paterson and a Soup Kitchen in Newark among other activities. After I completed the program, the amazing Laura Sodano, who ran the Institute, encouraged me to apply to the Youth Hunger Council. The group is made up offifteen dedicated individuals who meet at the Community FoodBank of NJ and plan activities centered around absolving hunger and poverty. From what I learned working with the Council and from what I saw volunteering at places like the Boys and Girls Club of Plainfield, I was incredibly touched to start something of my own that could benefit the amazing people that I met.

MEYERSON: Read to Feed was created by my colleague, Yvette McBain, and me. She had come to me with just the name “Read to Feed” and asked if we could create a character education program out of that. We brainstormed, kicked around some possible ideas, and then fleshed out a program that would not only inspire community service, but would provide the opportunity to promote family literacy. Read to Feed your brain, Read to Feed those in need.

JB: Why are you passionate about your work? 

McMAHON: At Seton Hall Prep we want to raise money to combat local and world hunger, but more importantly we want to raise our students’ consciences and consciousnesses on hunger. There is no legitimate reason why people should go hungry today, in our world. Although we know we can only make a small dent in the problem, we do want every student to do at least one service so they can be able to minimally put a human face on the problem of hunger. Hopefully it will inspire them to make fighting hunger a lifelong mission.

BERY: Speaking with local, hardworking citizens inflicted with hunger inspired me to do even more work to ease the effects of hunger. I decided the best way to do this was to found my own volunteer organization, named Drive Out Hunger. The mission of the organization, taken from our website, is to be committed to slowing down and eventually ending hunger in the Northern New Jersey area by setting up fundraisers and food drives in local supermarkets and schools. I decided that, as a high school student, this would be the best way to help with the issue. Lots of people may believe that hunger is a problem that only effects foreign third world countries. However, I know it is a crisis that affects many families who may live near me. Ten percent of children in NJ are hungry and close to 300,000 NJ children go to bed hungry every night. In my mind, that is simply 300,000 too many. There are 1 million people in food-insecure households in New Jersey. Parents routinely have to come home and tell their children that there will not be any food tonight. Those are words no parent should have to tell their children. Twelve percent of the population in New Jersey is living without access to sufficient quantities of food. These statistics undoubtedly motivate me, but I also derive motivation from the people I’ve met. I constantly think about the nine year old I played Madden with after delivering food to the Boys and Girls Club. I derive motivation from the 20-something aspiring dancer who performed to “Billie Jean” at the Newark Soup Kitchen. These people are real with real faces and real stories and hunger has affected them in profound ways. This theme was stressed during my time learning about hunger at the Food Bank and has only been reinforced during my experiences working with my own volunteer organization Drive Out Hunger.

MEYERSON: I am passionate about it because I feel it is a terrific way to promote family literacy while doing something positive for our local community. I see how much fun the students have sharing a reading experience with a parent or other family member and I feel like I am giving families an opportunity to stop, share, and appreciate quality time with good literature.

JB: What’s the best part of your volunteer work?

BERY: The best experience I had during my time with CFBNJ has been having the opportunity to deliver hundreds of pounds of food to the people that need it most. When I founded Drive Out Hunger two years ago, I couldn’t even dream that we would be able to put on multiple food drives as well as help sponsor speakers to raise awareness on the issue of domestic food insecurity. So each event that Drive Out Hunger puts on is an amazing experience. I’m honored and humbled to be able to do something to help alleviate this truly awful and far reaching problem.

JB: What has your organization achieved?

MEYERSON: The program has been hugely successful. Each year more students come with their families and I have seen a definite change in the way parents interact with their students during this event. At first, parents would cluster around the outside of the room while the students took part in the read-alouds, etc. However, now parents sit with their students to either listen to a read aloud or to just read together quietly. I think it is encouraging families to share the gift of reading. With regard to the food drive portion, we consistently raised about $1,200 each year that we collected only monetary donations. This last year, we donated 1,100 pounds of food. That was 1/3 of what our district collected during the same period. (This past year, we coordinated this to correspond with a township initiative to collect food.) We earmarked our donation for our local food pantry, which was extremely grateful for such a large donation.

If you would like to become a Hunger Hero, reach out to the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, or to your own local food bank or food pantry!

Community FoodBank of New Jersey
31 Evans Terminal Road

Erin internIntern: Erin Petenko, a Journalism major at Rutgers University, is a native of Edison in Middlesex County. She has a passion for traveling and eating – and combining the two! Her favorite foods include Indian, Thai, and Jersey Shore boardwalk food. Outside of class, she works as editor for Rutgers’ newspaper, The Daily Targum. She would love to continue to share her passion for traveling and exploring both new locales and new dishes beyond college.