By Kim Guadagno
Tonight in New Jersey, children will go to bed hungry. Contrary to popular notions about hunger in America, most are not homeless. In fact, most New Jersey families that struggle to put food on the table live in households that have at least one working adult.
In Monmouth County, where I live, and in neighboring Ocean County, one in ten residents don’t know where their next meal will come from, let alone whether if it will be nutritious. One in seven of those ten are children. The anxiety and fear of not knowing is what social services agencies call “food insecurity.”
That is why I am beginning a new chapter in my life this week: leading the effort to end hunger in our community as Chief Executive Officer of Fulfill, formerly the Food Bank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties. Fulfill aims to not only help our neighbors experiencing food insecurity today, but to provide them with the resources to become self-sufficient for tomorrow. I am excited join a team of 50 employees and 1,400 volunteers whose mission is to “shorten the line” of those in our communities who are hungry.
In decades of serving as an elected official and as a federal and state prosecutor, I have seen firsthand that government is ill-equipped to solve complex problems like widespread hunger and food insecurity. Even when solutions are conceivable, they are often rarely achievable, partly because of politics, but chiefly because governmental solutions are simply enormously expensive…and because government is the proverbial ocean liner that changes course too slowly and often too late.
Fulfill’s mission is to identify and develop comprehensive solutions to the range of problems that lead to hunger and food insecurity in the first place. Of course, we distribute food to those who need it, but our overarching goal is to help those in need get to a place where they can get back on their feet for good.
Fulfill provides 13.2 million meals annually through a network of over 300 food pantries and soup kitchens in Monmouth and Ocean Counties. We also “fulfill” needs such as job training, helping file tax returns, finding access to health insurance, job training and gaining access to services that help families eliminate their food insecurity. For example, through our culinary art training school, Fulfill has graduated 389 trainees.
When I was Lieutenant Governor, I visited a food pantry and met a woman who proudly told me her daughter was serving our country as a U.S. Marine. This mother had fallen on tough times, she told me, and despite working two jobs, she had to rely on the pantry to feed her family. But what bothered her most — her “worst fear,” as she put it — was that her daughter would learn she was shopping at a food pantry and be embarrassed.
That’s the rub, isn’t it? Even as we struggle with hunger and food insecurity, we also struggle with the stigma associated with having to rely on food pantries. But why? If one out of ten families across the state struggle with food insecurity, these folks aren’t just other families; they’re us.
In the coming months, it is my goal to reach every corner of Monmouth and Ocean Counties to raise awareness of hunger in our own backyard and of the services Fulfill provides. If you are a business or community leader in our area, don’t be surprised if I reach out to you for support for the important work Fulfill has undertaken. If you are one of the thousands of people to whom I offered my cell phone number over the years, now is the time to call that number and offer your help to support Fulfill’s work, whether with a donation or as a volunteer.
As I begin this new endeavor, a comment that rings in my ears as a call to action was made by a school superintendent who was criticized for not closing schools during a snow storm. “If we didn’t open the schools,” he said, “many of our children would not eat that day.” In this day and age, that is not the reality in which we should be living.
Log onto fulfillnj.org and donate or volunteer.
Kim Guadagno served as New Jersey’s first Lt. Governor and is now the President and Chief Executive Officer of Fulfill, formerly the FoodBank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties.