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Princeton area volunteers and donors help keep food pantries stocked during coronavirus crisis

Princeton resident Liliana Morenilla coordinates efforts at the food pantry located at the Hank Pannell Learning Center on Witherspoon Street.

More people are facing food insecurity in the Princeton region because of job furloughs, layoffs, and business closures related to the coronavirus pandemic. Food pantries are also facing greater challenges in meeting the increase in need because of the decrease in donations from grocery stores during the crisis and a decline in the number of volunteers.

Princeton resident Liliana Morenilla has been working to see that those in need in the Princeton community have enough to eat during the crisis. Morenilla, who works as the bilingual parent liaison for the Princeton Public Schools, uses her lunch hour and her spare time after work to coordinate efforts to collect, pack and distribute food to families at the Henry Pannell Learning Center in downtown Princeton. She has been operating the food pantry with volunteers for a few years.

“The need has risen a lot,” Morenilla said. “Families who were not previously using the pantry have either stopped by looking for food and toiletries, or have been asking through friends.”

Last week, volunteers at the Henry Pannell Learning Center distributed 100 bags of food, Morenilla said. Each bag is enough to feed a family of five for two weeks. The bags are packed with rice, beans, pasta, tomato sauce, peanut butter, cereal, oatmeal, canned fruits and vegetables, canned tuna, soup, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, paper towels, and other items. Morenilla expects to distribute at least 200 bags this week.

Lilliana Morenilla and Princeton resident Jennifer Cohan sort food at the Clay Street food pantry on Thursday.

On Wednesday, volunteers were hard at work filling the bags while practicing social distancing.

Donations are being accepted this Friday, March 20, from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. at the Henry Pannell Learning Center, which is located at the corner of Clay Street and Witherspoon Street. Donations of gift cards in $25 increments to Walgreens, CVS, Wegmans, and ShopRite are also being collected so people can get prescriptions filled with them. Residents can also make an online donation to the food pantry at sharemymeals.org/donate-now/. After Friday, food donations will be accepted at Arm in Arm at Nassau Presbyterian Church.

Rohan Sheth, a freshman at the Hun School who lives in Princeton, packs food bags on Thursday.

South Brunswick Food Pantry volunteers are also working to keep the shelves stocked there. Donations are being accepted at the South Brunswick Police Department Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the municipal building at 540 Ridge Road. The food pantry is also accepting gift cards to Stop and Shop and Shop Rite.

“The Food Bank has been doing an amazing job of managing the needs of our community, and has really stepped up to be sure our food stock doesn’t fall short,” South Brunswick Mayor Charlie Carley said.

In Trenton, Princeton Theological Seminary graduate Erich Kussman, pastor of St. Bartholomew Lutheran Church, has been working to keep up with the demand for food. Thanks to support from area residents and churches, including Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Abiding Presence Lutheran Church, and St. Paul Lutheran Church in East Windsor, his church’s shelves are not empty.

The City of Trenton is continuing to feed children “grab and go” lunches but has been struggling to provide enough lunches. In addition to operating a food pantry, Kussman’s church was able to provide 500 sandwiches to the school district with the help of volunteers and area churches.

“In these times, we don’t know what is going to happen,” Kussman said. “But we do know we need to love our neighbor and make sure they are taken care of.”

Lunches for Trenton school children, prepared by St. Bartholomew Lutheran Church in Trenton with help from other area churches.

The Princeton Children’s Fund is also distributing emergency funding to people who need help. The fund is partnering with Princeton Community Housing, the Princeton Human Services Department, the Princeton Senior Resource Center, and Send Hunger Packing Princeton. The fund will provide financial support to economically disadvantaged Princeton families facing income loss during coronavirus closures by supplementing the partner organizations that are already set up to provide support. Donations are tax-deductible and can be made online at www.princetonchildrensfund.org.