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Princeton Mobile Food Pantry supplies neighbors in need with food and more during coronavirus crisis

Volunteer Hrishi Somayaji of Princeton prepares groceries for delivery to families. Photos by Krystal Knapp.

The food pantry at the Henry Pannell Learning Center on Clay Street in Princeton was closed down in late March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the governor’s stay-at-home order, and the need for social distancing. But volunteers have pivoted, creating a mobile food pantry that is serving a growing number of people in the Princeton community.

A grassroots effort, the Princeton Mobile Food Pantry is all about neighbors helping neighbors. Volunteers who live in Princeton have been collecting gift cards and money to purchase groceries to be delivered to families in need. More than 150 residents have contributed to the effort, which seeks to provide people who are food insecure with fresh, healthy foods, while also preserving people’s dignity. The group also provides residents with other needed items like diapers, soap, and gift cards for pharmacies so they can fill prescriptions. People in need are not required to fill out applications or provide financial documents to prove they need food.

Volunteer Deb Bronfeld said the lines for food at the pantry on Clay Street grew after the COVID-19 outbreak because more people were out of work. Organizers knew they would have to pivot to dropping off food in order to protect people because it was impossible to have enough space between people at the pantry.

“The needs have grown beyond the neighborhoods where there has historically been a need,” Bronfeld said. “We are working to make sure we are serving more people, and we are working to expand and partner with other groups. This has been a completely grassroots effort where we have received all of our money from friends. Luckily, McCaffrey’s has been very generous. We know there are more people we can help.”

Early Friday morning, volunteers headed to McCaffrey’s Food Market to buy enough groceries to feed about 300 people for two weeks. They bought fresh fruits and vegetables, whole-grain bread, pasta, beans, rice, milk, chicken, beef, and other items. An assembly line of masked and gloved volunteers, practicing social distancing, sorted and bagged the food in the McCaffrey’s parking lot. Volunteers then delivered the food to doorsteps in Princeton, calling or texting residents after they left so they would know the food was there. The next food delivery will be May 1.

The group purchased more than $5,150 worth of food with gift cards and cash donations. McCaffrey’s gave the pantry a 15% discount, plus a $100 gift card. The store manager even contributed $50 our of his own pocket for the effort. After discounts totaling $893, the bill was $4,257.

McCaffrey’s store manager Anthony Sanfilippo helped the group buy and organize items in the store. The grocery store is also a regular supporter of Arm in Arm.

“When we called Anthony, he didn’t miss a beat. He said he would love to help the community,” volunteer Dafna Kendal said, adding that the support of McCaffrey’s helped the group provide more food to more people.

“It’s always a no-brainer donating food to people in need,” Sanfilippo said. “The only question was, would we have all of the product? But we were able to fill about 85% of the order.” He said the buyers for McCaffrey’s markets have been working hard to keep stores well stocked, including purchasing food from restaurant suppliers.

The need for food in the community was apparent just from observing the group in action on Friday for five minutes in the parking lot. A few people who saw the volunteers packing food approached them, asking if they could have some food.

One woman who had just left the grocery store was carrying a small bag with a few items in it, including pasta and tuna. “I’d be grateful if I could just have a few avocados,” she said.

For more information about the Princeton Mobile Food Pantry, to make a donation, or if you live in Princeton and need food, visit the group’s website at https://princetonfoodpantry.wixsite.com/website or email pmfpantry@gmail.com.

Anthony Sanfilippo, manager of McCaffrey’s in Princeton, helps food pantry volunteers on Friday.
Princeton resident Steven Petrecca.
Princeton resident Jennifer Cohan shops for food for the mobile food pantry.
(l-r) Volunteers Amy Lansky, Dafna Kendal, Deb Bronfeld, and Ian Graham at the checkout at McCaffrey’s. They were assisted by floor manager Fernando Gonzales.
McCaffrey’s floor manager Fernando Gonzales rings up chicken for the mobile food pantry on Friday.
(l-r) Volunteers Shilpa Pai, Nancy Shulman, Deb Bronfeld, and Amy Lansky sort fruits and vegetables for the mobile food pantry on Friday.
Emilia Tosic-Di Santo (l), Ian Graham (front) and other volunteers sort meat and other items.
Fresh fruits and vegetables to be sorted by volunteers.
The note that is included with each grocery delivery.


  1. This is a really well meaning effort, meeting what is undoubtedly a desperate need for food. I hope the good done by the donated food was greater than the problems caused by cleaning out the inventory of meats, fruits, etc. that day at the one (relatively small) grocery store in town. The person needing avocados may have simply not found any left for sale inside. If that had been the one day per week I venture out for food, I would have been horrified to see all the chicken stacked up in one checkout lane. These sorts of very large giveaways should probably order ahead to avoid unintended deprivations of the usual shoppers. Perhaps simply giving out gift cards and letting recipients decide what and when to buy would be a better option.

  2. You have a point, David. Where I work, we used to give families presents for Christmas, figuring out with information of family members, gender, and age, what was appropriate. Then, we switched to gift cards, and the gift cards are for WalMart, ShopRite, or Visa cards to be used wherever they need to go according to their actual needs.

  3. Kudos to all the volunteers who organized and implemented this terrific community effort, as well as to McCaffrey’s and financial contributors for their generosity. The need in town is, unfortunately, great with so many people who had been working low income service jobs – that we all depend on – now out of work. Restaurants, cafes, shops, in our schools, and in light construction. Yes, a process can always be tweaked to improve it…..but there is no time for that now. And it sounds like the organizers know who needs what with a store to door delivery system. I suspect that many of the recipients do not drive or own a car. What a great grass roots community service!

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