Who doesn’t want a good meal? Especially when you may be living on the street or otherwise struggling so much to survive that a nourishing soup, sandwich or snack may be the only food that you will have that day.
That’s why the role that some Jersey City-based groups and organizations as well as residents play in filling the stomachs of their fellow citizens who are down and out is so crucial to their survival.
Whether it is St. Lucy’s Shelter on Grove Street near the Jersey City-Hoboken border or food pantries such as C.A.U.S.E. Center on Bergen Avenue in the city’s McGinley Square section, there is a safety net, albeit tenuous at best.
It’s part of the food-insecure world that exists for many in New Jersey.
The Washington D.C.-based Food Research and Action Center in a December 2014 survey found that in the same year, 906,735 people participated in the food stamp program in New Jersey, a 67 percent increase from five years before. The Community FoodBank of New Jersey in its hunger survey found that as of September 2014, 77 percent of emergency food clients in the state reported having to make the choice between paying for food and paying for utilities or heating fuel, a 40 percent jump from 2006.
Several residents commented for this article about their efforts to feed others as well as those persons who have benefitted.
Finding Peace through Food
Erik-Anders Nilsson remembers back in 2004 when he, along with other members of the fledgling Jersey City Peace Movement, would gather often at the open area near the fountain by the Journal Square Transportation Station to make their voices heard in opposition to the then-active Iraq War and other military excursions.
But what they found was that some of the people who were paying attention to them were themselves in need of attention.
“We noticed that there were a lot of homeless people there congregating at all times,” said Nilsson, who has worked as a professional actor for over 20 years. “We were surprised at how many people were there, and we began to befriend them.”
That’s when the JCPM decided to devote its time to providing food and clothing to their new acquaintances as well as help guide them toward shelters and social services.
Now, the last Sunday of each month, the JCPM spends two hours a month, which Nilsson said allows volunteers to give an amount of time equivalent to one day a year. That means serving vegetarian food and pizza and water, and bringing clean clothing.
He said the result of the simple gesture of this monthly activity was that thousands of people have been fed and clothed, and some even decided to no longer live on the streets. And he believes something even more substantial has come about.
“Somewhere in that mix at least one person didn’t commit a crime because we gave them food, or they didn’t commit a crime because we were able to provide them with clothes or with shoes,” Nilsson said.
Nilsson also said JCPM members and other residents who started working to feed the homeless have attended City Council meetings to advocate for and succeed in getting funding for upgrades to shelters.
However, Nilsson is worried about the future as there will be more homeless to feed since the government on all levels will cut social services further. But he said the JCPM has been networking with other community groups such as the Jersey City Asian Merchants Association to fill the void when the state is not able to fill the stomachs of those most needy.
Filling the Hunger Gap
The work that Erik-Anders Nilsson does to feed those less fortunate depends on the assistance of likeminded folks. One of them is Riaz Wahid.
Wahid, who lives with his wife and children in the city’s Journal Square area, has since 2009 been part of the Jersey City Peace Movement’s efforts to feed the homeless in the Journal Square area.
“I used to make 20 fruit bags that I used to give to the homeless and each one had a banana, orange and an apple,” Wahid said. “But we came to a point where it was not sufficient and people were asking for other things.”
Wahid said the Jersey City Asian Merchants Association started lending their assistance that has led to 90 meals a day, consisting of rice, chicken and beans being delivered to chronically homeless persons in various locations across the city.
He has also been working in recent years with the Building Blocks of New Jersey, a nonprofit organization with an office in Jersey City made up of volunteers in the Muslim community who every Saturday prepare 350 meals to distribute.
He also said he is working with homeless advocates in Jersey City to start a program similar to City Harvest, the renowned New York City-based food-rescue organization, to reclaim food from restaurants in Downtown Jersey City.
When he thinks back on why he got involved in feeding others in the first place, he cites cultural reasons. When Wahid looks at why he continues to be involved, he tells the story of a single mom he once encountered while doing a feeding session.
“She took me to her home and I saw she had a couple of kids, and there were three eggs in the refrigerator,” Wahid said. “That’s all she had, three eggs.”
Box of Joy
Once a month, Christopher Mainor, with the help of friends and acquaintances, has been preparing at least 50 food boxes to distribute in the city’s Greenville and Bergen-Lafayette sections to people who are not as well-off.
Mainor, a longtime Jersey City resident, said he started this effort in 2013 with a simple philosophy that grew out of his upbringing in the Lafayette Gardens housing complex, which was located near the city’s Downtown area but it no longer exists.
“I grew up in the projects so I grew up not having, and I simply said now that I have, I will try my best to ensure other people can have,” Mainor said. “So I fund the monthly food box giveaway out of my pocket for the sake of others.”
Since he started, Mainor said he has gotten help from others to carry out this giveaway including members of the Meanboy Riderz Motorcycle Club and employees of Horizon Health Center on Bergen Avenue.
And he would like to get more people involved in assisting him as he plans in the coming months to not just hand out food boxes but also passing out free hot dogs and hamburgers as the weather gets warmer.
“I look at it as a success when a single mother is able to get a box with no questions asked and have food to feed her children or that mature person (Senior Citizen) is able to take home a blessing like this when their fixed income has run out.”
Getting the Benefit
Frank Powers had been on the streets of Jersey City for a long time but is now staying with a friend.
He has been around the Journal Square area long enough and often enough that he has seen most of the groups that have been bringing food to the street people that he knows, as was the case on a recent Sunday afternoon when the Jersey City Peace Movement was present.
Powers was enjoying a lunch of pizza and home-cooked rice before speaking to a reporter about the folks who have been doing the feeding.
“They doing a very good job, and that’s to be commended,” Powers said. “It gives [the homeless] something to wake up to.”
Dan (declined to give last name) comes to Jersey City from time to time from his current living space at the PERC Shelter in Union City to get some food as did on this Sunday afternoon. He lives in the shelter as a result of losing his superintendent’s job at a building in an unnamed New Jersey town.
The 61-year-old gave credit to people who take time from their off-days to provide for others.
“This is the weekend for a lot of people, they don’t want to know anything, and they want to go to the beach, they want to go someplace,” Dan said. “[Giving of food] is a very unselfish thing.”
Ricardo Kaulessar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org