Translated by Diana Chang
Edited by Natasha Palance
“One, two, three! Push!” No matter their background, regardless of rain or shine, volunteers wear protective back support belts and work together to push thousands of kilograms of food into the Tzu Chi Cedar Grove food pantry at the New Jersey branch office. Food donations are then carefully labeled, categorized and stored in specific locations, and such scenarios are repeated several times a month.
This past September 10 was a big day for the Tzu Chi New Jersey branch, marking the nine-year anniversary of its food pantry! After nine years of hard work, 2,032 households have registered with the food pantry to date; on average over 100 households are served each week, benefitting nearly 1,200 individuals per month.
Tzujin Chang still remembers when she first spoke to former City Mayor of Cedar Grove Robert O’Toole regarding the importance of a food bank for the community: “As I recall that moment nine years ago, we were told by the mayor that a resident had been facilitating a food pantry in his garage. Since that resident has left, he asked if we would continue with a food pantry service in the community.”
Although, the acquired responsibility is no easy task. Volunteers still remember the grand opening day back in early September of 2010. At that time, volunteers were happy to prepare the canned food and vegetables, but encountered some challenges along the way, as no one had come to collect the food. In order to service the community, enthusiasm is not enough; a team must also be wise and determined. At that moment, all the volunteers began to review the program to ensure program improvements.
“Before the big day [of distribution], we have many preparatory steps to complete,” volunteer Jianheng Chou explained. The seemingly simple but complicated food warehousing process includes contacting different food vendors, listing the foods, arranging delivery, and inviting volunteers, as well as keying in information into the warehousing system and identifying inventory stock. All details of operation are similar to that of a supermarket, but instead the foods are distributed to people in need and efficiency is of great importance. “Previously, I’ve visited many food pantry [warehouses], and they all use a handwritten system or simply just give food to you; it will be hard to manage in that case,” Chou said.
Each little detail is a big deal. Every Wednesday morning, Tzu Chi volunteers must go to a food bank to collect supplies. Subsequently, volunteer Guohua Chen is responsible for making an appointment with the food bank for monthly distributions on a first-come first-served basis. Although the food is not personally for volunteers, the team still hopes to bring their best to benefit as many individuals as possible with fresh foods and ingredients. “Every month, I’ll make sure to book a pick-up appointment at 7:30; if delayed until 8:30, things may run out,” Chen explained.
Once the schedule is done, there’s physical work that follows next. The longest day of processing is the day of the delivery, when four to five thousand kilograms of dry goods arrive. It takes a lot of time and effort to unload from the truck and move it up to the second floor. After that, items are stored on the labeled shelves; bread, fruits and vegetables are placed in separate boxes to avoid crushing and damages. Even if these are all labor intensive jobs, volunteers are still happy to provide the service.
Facilitation of distribution is also a learning process. Our food pantry is open from 11:30 AM to 2 PM on Fridays and Saturdays. Often by ten in the morning, volunteers are already hard at work, some placing bread in boxes, others sorting fruits and vegetables. In order to serve in an orderly fashion, Tzu Chi volunteers mindfully prepare a large bag of fresh fruits and vegetables for each recipient in advance. That way, all care recipients have to do is to pick up their bags of food when their numbers are called.
Some of our care recipients don’t have the ability to make a living after their spouses pass away, leaving single-parents to manage the household on their own, many of whom don’t speak English. In many of these cases, the eyes of these care recipients are full of tears after receiving the food aid. Without Tzu Chi’s food pantry, many of these families would suffer from hunger or malnutrition. Through a translation, one care recipient, Rosalinda Cog, said with deep sentiments, “I’m very grateful to all of you for providing this service to us. I hope you can continue to help those in need.”
In addition to picking dry goods, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables with a computer, the best part for care recipients is that every Tzu Chi volunteer always serves with a smile on their faces and treats everyone like family. These simple gestures make the recipient experience with Tzu Chi very different from other food pantries, where exchanges of compassion ensure every individual leaves with a smile.
Tzujin Chang explained how recipients enjoy visiting the New Jersey branch office because of the peacefulness they always experience: “The warm interactions of this kind make them feel comfortable and they are willing to interact with us. I think these cycles of good deeds are priceless.”
In fact, their experience with Tzu Chi is so enjoyable that oftentimes care recipients will return as volunteers to pass this compassion onto others. Chang expanded as follows: “Over the years, many residents have come to assist volunteers with preparation set ups when picking up their supplies. Also, when it snows, they help with clearing the snow. This mutual help, warms up our hearts and souls with joy and happiness, leading to closer relationships with the recipients.”
In addition to its mission of charity, the New Jersey branch food pantry also plays an important role in spreading the seeds of Tzu Chi’s education mission. Throughout the past nine years, many domestic and international organizations, including Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), University of Electronic Science and Technology of China, local Boy Scouts and many more, have all come to the food pantry to gain experience as a ‘Volunteer of the Day.“ Tzu Chi volunteers take this opportunity to share the Tzu Chi missions with visitors and promote the environmental protection concept of Tzu Chi Humanistic Cultures.
With a significant nine years of hard work and dedication, we’re grateful to all the volunteers who have participated in the food pantry and who have personally helped care recipients. Thanks to this shared compassion and mutual support, the Tzu Chi New Jersey food pantry can efficiently serve the community as improvements continue to be made.
Happy Anniversary to the New Jersey food pantry and its wonderful team!