A New System Helps Expand Food Pantry Services in New Jersey

Mid-Atlantic  |  June 16, 2023
A streamlined workflow that involves scanning QR codes to verify identity, packaging, and delivery makes food distribution smooth and efficient. Photo/Wankang Wang

Written by WanKang Wang
Translated by Hong (Ariel) Chan
Edited by Andrea Barkley

In early 2022, the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war led to a global food shortage, resulting in skyrocketing prices. Additionally, the pandemic economically impacted the United States, causing significant inflation. A federal budget deficit and a reduction in various social welfare programs followed. These global and national crises made it even more difficult for families struggling to make ends meet and needing more assistance. In addition, as many tech companies announced significant layoffs and hiring freezes, more American households faced the distressing situation of struggling to put food on the table.

Implementing a New Digital Scanning Mode

Tzu Chi USA’s Mid-Atlantic Region established a Food Pantry in September 2010 and has distributed supplies for over 12 years. Volunteers distribute tens of thousands of pounds of food weekly, benefiting nearly 400 households, yet the number is rising. Given the current situation, with an escalating unemployment rate in the community, the Tzu Chi New Jersey Food Pantry has requested increased food supplies from government food banks. 

Due to the impact of the pandemic, the distribution process also shifted from indoors to outdoors. During inclement weather, verifying identities with paper documents became problematic. To solve this issue, address the shortage of volunteers, and make the entire distribution process smoother and more efficient, the Tzu Chi New Jersey Food Pantry officially launched the new digital scanning system this year. When people arrive at the Mid-Atlantic Region Office, they can quickly receive food by scanning a QR code. With the extra time saved, they can also enter the service center to select practical second-hand clothing for their families.

The successful implementation of the “QR code identity verification system” and the “household dynamic system” can be attributed to the dedicated computer engineer Yongtai Tsai. Since 2010, Yongtai has been involved in the distribution process and has helped with the distribution every Friday, despite experiencing a stroke and subsequent surgery. Nevertheless, he persevered with determination and completed the development of this customized system for the Tzu Chi USA Mid-Atlantic. The coordination between the two systems enables real-time presentation of the distribution status and data sharing.

Since we have to submit reports every week and every month, the new system not only greatly improves the speed of registration and food collection for the public but also facilitates the completion of statistical reports. We receive food from the government, so it is our responsibility to report where we use the items.

Getting Through Tough Times

Every Friday morning, the parking lot outside the vast Jing Si Hall of the Mid-Atlantic Region Office fills with the vehicles of those arriving to receive food. This activity often causes traffic congestion, and the indoor hall always has new families waiting to register.

People who have access to three meals a day may not understand the stress and worry experienced by those who do not. Those needing food are concerned about arriving late and not receiving any goods. Their only desire is a box of food to sustain their families. According to statistics, most beneficiaries who come to collect food are from communities where English is a second language. Some need assistance for health reasons, while others have lost their jobs and income due to the economic downturn and inflation in the United States, resulting in immediate hardship. 

“Recently, we received notification from the New Jersey Food Bank that they have actually reduced SNAP subsidies, so many families have lost their food vouchers. We are trying to coordinate to help them reapply for food vouchers (but there are no results yet). I have noticed an increasing number of mothers coming to collect diapers, formula milk, and clothes. For various reasons, they desperately need these resources; receiving them is crucial for them,” said Tzu Chi volunteer Huijing Liu.

Single mother Rosa Madera has two children. Due to her father’s Parkinson’s disease and the need for caregiving, Rosa, who used to be a substitute teacher, is no longer employed. This distribution was her first time coming to Tzu Chi USA’s Mid-Atlantic Region Office. Madera shared, “Nowadays, everything is too expensive. A friend told me that there are many good things here, so I came. Now I have everything I need. Thank you very much.”

Spiros Chartofillis, one of the earliest beneficiaries of the food pantry program, has been coming  to Tzu Chi distributions for over ten years. “You not only provide financial assistance but also offer personal and spiritual help. Now, my wife and her son, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have come from Ukraine to seek asylum in the United States, and you have provided our basic needs. You are like a gift from heaven; no matter how small, it is reliable and brings peace of mind to us.”

Everyone encounters challenges in their lives. Through expanding services and upgrading processes, Tzu Chi volunteers in New Jersey aspire to bring comfort to more people, accompany them through difficult times, and fill society with love and hope.

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