Choice Food Resource Center at Unity Square Aims to Nourish Bodies and Souls
Mayor Cahill, Faith-Based Community Leaders, Volunteers Take Part in Ribbon-Cutting Ceremony
The woman in the blue windbreaker carefully sorted through the box of green tomatoes, holding them up for inspection before deciding on just the right ones. Then she grabbed a couple of squash and two cans of kidney beans, added them to her cart, and moved on.
Although she was choosing her favorite foods to take home and prepare for her family, she was not in a supermarket or even a bodega.
The Choice Food Resource Center seeks to emulate the typical shopping experience by giving those facing food insecurity the opportunity to handpick their own groceries and move at their own pace.
The bottom floor of Unity Square Community Center at 81 Remsen Ave. has been transformed into a makeshift mart, lined with shelves and tables stocked with everything from boxes of linguine to cans of mixed fruit in extra light syrup to containers of body wash.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony held Tuesday that included local officials, grassroots volunteers, and members of the faith-based community was a chance to recognize that the Choice Food Resource Center launched about two months ago not only nourishes the body, but also the soul.
“My understanding is that there are about 650,000 people in New Jersey who are food insecure – 175,000 of them are children,” said The Right Reverend William H. (Chip) Stokes, Bishop of the Episcopalian Diocese of New Jersey. “Clearly our faith as Christians, for those of us who rest in that faith, it calls us to meet that human need in profound ways and also to do it in a way that’s dignified. This center allows for dignity. People can select the things they want in an effort to get fresh produce, to get wholesome food.”
The creation of the Choice Food Resource Center was years in the making, interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mayor Jim Cahill said the City of New Brunswick, in partnership with the Community Food Alliance, headed at that moment by current Department of Human and Community Services Keith Jones II, New Brunswick Tomorrow, and a faith-based coalition, undertook a study of the vast network of food distribution across the city.
The good news was that there were 29 pantries that were filling bags with the food they had collected and handing them out. It was evident, however, that more cooperation and planning could help them serve – if not save – more people.
“We realized that there was a better way perhaps where people would not only have greater convenience and access, but they would have greater convenience and access to the foods that they really needed, the foods that were culturally appropriate, the food that their families wanted and that they knew how to prepare,” Cahill said. “And thus, this.”
So, the Choice Food Resource Center, which is open Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Wednesdays from 4 to 8 p.m. for registered clients only, has become probably the greatest example that it takes a village to feed a city.
Unity Square, a community organizing and social concerns initiative of Catholic Charities through the Diocese of Metuchen, is collaborating with Emanuel Lutheran Church on Kirkpatrick Street and Christ Episcopal Church on Church Street in creating the center.
In fact, the food resource space at Emanuel Lutheran Church commonly known as Vanessa’s Pantry has merged with the center. Last week, Emanuel Lutheran Church presented a $5,000 check toward getting the Food Choice Resource Center off the ground.
The center is also receiving help from other partners, such as the Middlesex County-wide resource, Replenish, Elijah’s Promise, and the Community Food Bank of Hillside.
Vanessa Dunzik, for whom Vanessa’s Pantry was named, said it has been an adjustment period for clients who are used to just grabbing whatever food they can. Slowly, they are realizing they can be more selective about the foods they take, and that goes a long way in cutting down on food waste.
Dunzik said that the clients speak the international language of gratitude. Not only is the center staffed with volunteers to help serve Spanish-speaking customers, but they have located a bilingual volunteer to help the center serve some Chinese clients.
“You could see the looks on their faces, they were so grateful,” she said.
Julio Coto, the Executive Director of Catholic Charities, praised the dedication of volunteers such as Dunzik and Unity Square Program Director Jennifer Hinton.
“It’s marvelous for our clients,” he said. “I know that they are going to be so pleased to know that we’re here for them.”
Story and Photo Credit: Chuck O'Donnell