The premise started with a notion:  Anything that is needed within our community can be found within our community.  GRACE stands for Giving and Receiving Assistance for Our Community’s Essentials.

GRACE originally started with GRACE’s Closet.  This program connects families identified by teachers, principals, school nurses, social workers, or clergy with the clothing, household items, sports gear, or academic supplies they require.

In the fall of 2015, Summit’s Assistant Superintendent reported that 15% of all enrolled students in the Summit Schools are eligible for free or reduced price lunch.  The Summit Schools’ administration believes this number is underreported.  One in six Summit public school students faces food insecurity.  In addition, only one Summit elementary school qualifies for the federally funded breakfast program. All of the Summit schools have students in need of free breakfast.  

The Junior League of Summit along with the Connection and the United Way researched the issue of food insecurity and the local agencies who help food insecure families.  We gathered key groups (The Interfaith Council, SHIP, the Connection, the YMCA, the United Way, and the Department of Community Programs) and formed No Kid Goes Hungry in 07901, now known as GRACE.

Over the five Mondays in August 2016 families gathered for entertainment and food distribution, dubbed Family Fun Night.  Families who receive camp scholarships or help from other local agencies such as Area Baby Center or Overlook Hospital Charity Care were invited to attend.  Food insecure children and their parents enjoyed movies, cooking, games, yoga, dance, and swimming.  Each family received a bag of groceries and a chance to shop the free farm stand of rescued produce.  During this month we distributed 136 bags of groceries and 1,000 pounds of fresh produce rescued from the Summit Farmer’s Market.

To continue to meet the needs of Summit’s food insecure, GRACE’s Refrigerator opened for the first time on Sunday, September 11, 2016.  It was open this fall on Sundays afternoons at Central Presbyterian Church and Thursday evenings at Christ Church to offer Summit residents free fresh food.  On Sundays the food came from the farmer’s market, local businesses, and on Thursdays the food came from Community Food Bank. After the pilot phase, the Refrigerator condensed its hours to Thursday evenings at Summit’s Christ Church.  

Impact for the 2016-2017 Volunteer Year

GRACE’s Closet fulfills requests for specific needs from the local community from school administrators, teachers, and members of the clergy.  This year, the Closet fulfilled more than 40 requests ranging from winter gear for local elementary school children to household goods for a family transitioning from homelessness.  

GRACE’s Refrigerator offers nutrient dense produce, dairy, and prepared food to Summit’s food insecure families.   As of April 13, we distributed 24,241 pounds of produce, dairy, bread, and prepared food to 4,530 individuals:  of whom 2,412 are children and 198 are senior citizens.

The set up looks like a mini farmers market with a full array of fruit, vegetables, eggs, milk, and restaurant food.  The shoppers select what they would like, as they would if they were purchasing the food.  The amount they take is based on a quota system depending on the size of their family.   In the fall, the food came from the Summit Farmers Market and the Community Food Bank of Central New Jersey.  While in our pilot phase, the Refrigerator had two locations and two days when we offered food.  On Sunday afternoons, we offered food mostly rescued from the Summit Farmers’ Market at Central Presbyterian Church and on Thursday evenings, we offered food mostly procured from the Community Food Bank at Christ Church.

Our shoppers and volunteers found it easiest to access GRACE’s Refrigerator on Thursday evenings.  In addition, Christ Church generously offered GRACE space and full use of the refrigerator.  When the Food Bank made it clear GRACE needed its own refrigerator, Christ Church found ample space for the refrigerator and storage space for non-refrigerated foods.  In December, the United Way awarded GRACE a $5,000 grant to purchase a professional-grade refrigerator which can hold nearly 8-10 cases of produce.  

Due to a clearance issue, we went on hiatus with the Food Bank in January and regained access April 19.  While on hiatus, the JLS provided a budget of $500 a week to purchase the produce and dairy at wholesale or nearly wholesale prices.  Donations of hearty produce poured in from the community and Tito’s, Batavia, Marigold’s and Manhattan Bagel round out our offerings with prepared food and bread.

Just when we think our crowds will grow smaller, GRACE’s Refrigerator continues to grow.  At first we fed an average 20 families per week and now we feed 47 families on average.  The third Thursday of the month is always the busiest time. By that time of the month, benefits and paychecks have already been spent.  We look forward to seeing what the summer will bring, perhaps less crowds due to increased opportunities for temporary labor?  Or will there be more need because of school vacation?

GRACE’s Backpack is a joint effort with the Summit Area YMCA, the United Way, and the Community Food Bank of Central New Jersey.  Now in our pilot year, we started with Jefferson Elementary School and Jefferson Primary Center, where food insecurity is a its highest in Summit.  34% of Jefferson students are eligible for free or reduced price meals.  Weekends, snow days, and vacations can be a hardship for families who rely on school foodservice.  The weekend family packs are made at the Food Bank and volunteers pick up, transport, and deliver the food.  The school keeps the families’ identities anonymous and takes care of the distribution.  

Last year, the JLS provided breakfast and lunch bags for Jefferson School to distribute to children who would not have enough to eat during snow days.  This year, the JLS connected Bridges Outreach to Jefferson to share their shelf-stable “sustainable” lunches for distribution in the event of a snow day or a foreseeable delayed opening.

While the December vacation is a time when our area’s residents are especially generous with those less fortunate, April vacation is a time when many working poor and food insecure families have to go without. Central Presbyterian Church, Christ Church, Church of Christ Scientist, Congregation Beth Hatikvah, Kent Place Middle School, St John’s Lutheran, St Teresa’s Roman Catholic Church and Summit Marches On pledged various items to make a full bag of groceries for each of the nearly 250 elementary school families who receive free or reduced price school meals.   

In Summit, only the high school, the middle school, and Jefferson Elementary and Primary Center have the percentage of students to secure USDA funding for breakfast.  There are students in all of the other schools need breakfast but they are unable to access it.  As we have been able, GRACE’s Breakfast has provided nutrient-dense morning snacks to the schools without a breakfast program.  This program allows hungry kids to quietly secure healthful and kid-friendly morning snack from the school nurse or their classroom teacher when their peers are also eating.  We are indebted to the generous donors who have made this initiative possible, the JLS Sustainers and MySuperfoods:  a snack company based in Summit, NJ.

Supporters and Volunteer Opportunities

Young women, in addition to JLS volunteers, and members of the faith community have proven themselves an important force in making GRACE happen.  Two students from Kent Place Middle School have dedicated their genius project to GRACE, and to understanding the realities of the working poor in our area.  Most significantly, GRACE’s Treats was created by the Cadette Girl Scout troop at Chatham Middle School to provide items that are not covered by food stamps.  Each month, the Cadettes collect and distribute hygiene items, household cleaning supplies, and food items to help the families who shop at GRACE Refrigerator.

The Summit Community Garden is growing some of the foods most desired by this food insecure population including cilantro, scallions, peppers, and squash, cauliflower, cabbage and lettuce.  Kent Place Middle School has also dedicated a plot in the Community Garden to grow food expressly for the Refrigerator starting in spring 2017.  We accept donations from local farms and personal gardens.