Food banks in New Jersey are anticipating a surge in demand for their services, as business closures and layoffs related to COVID-19 continue to ramp up throughout the state. At the same time, they're hoping no more of their network partners shut their own doors due to concerns over the public health crisis.

Over a 24-hour period into early Monday, a lack of volunteers and fear of the virus caused the closure of "several food pantries and soup kitchens" served by Fulfill, the Neptune City-based food bank said. To help make up for the thousands of meals no longer being prepared, Fuflill quickly teamed up with the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association, and local restaurants, to distribute boxed, prepared meals to people in need.

"We will be paying the restaurants a small stipend for their preparation of grab-and-go food," said Fulfill CEO Kim Guadagno, former lieutenant governor of New Jersey. "We'll do it for as long as we can."

Fulfill, formerly the FoodBank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties, is 87% funded through private donations, and demand is expected to grow exponentially, Guadagno said.

"Now the question is, can we feed everyone who needs to be fed? And the answer is, I don't know, but we have an obligation to try," Guadagno said.

The Community FoodBank of New Jersey is encouraging residents to call a pantry or soup kitchen before stopping by, in case operations have changed in any way. The Hillside-based organization says its network remains open, with a few exceptions.

"We still are receiving donated food. We've also made sure that we have more flexibility with some of the federal and state commodities that we receive, so that we can deploy them as needed," said CFBNJ CEO Carlos Rodriguez.

Because of an anticipated uptick in demand, Rodriguez said CFBNJ is focused on keeping inventory replenished.

"Luckily, we also contract for extra storage and space if we need it, and we have some of those relationships in place," he said.

From the facilities themselves, down to the local level where neighbors are picking up food, Rodriguez said, steps are being taken to increase social distancing, in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19. Work on site has moved over to a three-shift operation, and agency partners do not have to enter the facility to pick up food for distribution, among other measures.

At Fulfill, volunteer shifts are being moved to later in the day, as to get more participation from younger individuals who may be home from college for the time being. Currently, most of Fulfill's volunteer base is 60 years old and up, and the nonprofit wants to limit their visits to the facility. The operation has also stepped back from encouraging "choice pantries," where those in need can essentially "shop" for the things they need.

"We can't do that any longer because of the social distancing and the long lines it sometimes produces," Guadagno said. "Instead we're going to create what we call grab-and-go boxes, so that the family can grab a box, maybe even from the curb."


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