Volunteers work to feed the hungry in Elizabeth

ELIZABETH, NJ — For a lot of people living in the Elizabeth area, a plain peanut butter and jelly sandwich can mean a world of difference, said Linda Flores-Tober, the Executive Director at the Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless.

That’s the idea between the month-long, sandwich-focused food drive in Elizabeth dubbed “Hunger Doesn’t Take A Vacation,” which is being put together for the third consecutive year by Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, the Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless, and the St. Joseph Service Center, where the program is being hosted.

After volunteers make the sandwiches each Tuesday, the food is distributed to homeless residents who need it. And usually, said Flores-Tober, there’s not a “crumb to be found” in the Service Center by the end of the week.

“We work mostly with the homeless. What happens is when we ask people what they last ate, it’s very common for people to say they haven’t had anything to eat since yesterday or the day before. Very common. And so what we do is offer them a sandwich,” said Flores-Tober. “Quijano wanted to do something special, and we had suggested to do sandwich making. The first few years it went really well, but this year people are like dying to volunteer.”

Local residents in the Elizabeth area, said Flores-Tober, are always trying to help out. During the school year, for example, many students bring in extra sandwiches on “Two for Tuesdays,” and civic groups volunteer their time for the cause. But because those groups don’t meet during the summer, Quijano helped start the annual “Hunger Doesn’t Take A Vacation.”

“The last few years have been truly inspiring to see so many good-hearted people volunteer to help those who are less fortunate,” said Quijano. “During the busy summer months, it’s easy to forget that there are those around us for whom hunger doesn’t take a vacation.”

Many of the beneficiaries, added Flores-Tober, are people who are “always hungry,” and cannot afford regular meals. Others are saving their money to feed children, resulting in working men and women who starve themselves. Even the food drive sandwiches don’t count as a “free lunch,” said Flores-Tober, since they’re “real plain sandwiches,” made up of either peanut butter and jelly or a little bit of meat on bread.

But the results can be life-changing.
“Someone just came in and said ‘I want to thank you for saving my son’s life.’ Evidently her son had an issue with drug addiction, and he was going to the clinic that’s up the street from us, and this was the only food he ate, the two sandwiches he got every day,” said Flores-Tober. “He subsequently was able to turn his life around, he’s no longer using drugs, and is now working and productive. His mom came in and said ‘you saved my son’s life, because if you weren’t here, there’s no way he otherwise would have had food to eat.’”

Those kinds of stories, said Flores-Tober, demonstrate the real effects of the program. And support has come both in the form of enthusiastic volunteers, added Flores-Tober, as well as donations from various groups, including the New Jersey Devils, the Red Cross and other Elizabeth community organizations.

“Donations have been received from various organizations and businesses, but additional assistance can assure that more people are fed. Whether its money, bottled water, small snacks, people can continue to donate online,” said Quijano. “I hope everyone will take the time to find out how they can get involved, not just in August, but every month of the year, to help fight the growing hunger problem around us.”

Overall, the reception from the community this year has been fantastic, said Flores-Tober, in part because residents are realizing that other people are still struggling from the recession. Residents are “moved” when they see that struggle, as well as the rise of the working homeless in the city, who usually can’t be accommodated in the shelter system for very long, added Flores-Tober.

“We still live in a country where having to eat, is not for everybody yet,” said Flores-Tober. “I think those sandwiches make a big difference in a lot of lives. It seems like a small gesture, to come here and make a sandwich, it’s a small, simple thing people can do. But it really means something to those people, to have something to eat.”