Phil Stafford has run NJ Food & Clothing Rescue for many years. If you’re a regular reader of this newspaper, you know exactly who we mean. He’s long been a partner with the Kearny Board of Health and has been there in the best of times and the worst of times — just ask Nelly Albizu if there’s any doubt.
But for all the years he’s been bringing clothing and food to people who have fallen on bad times, Stafford says nothing — not Super Storm Sandy, not any fire, no other disaster — has compared to the hard times befallen on people than what has happened since March and the onset of the Coronavirus.
“It’s not even close. Not even Hurricane Floyd, which caused me to start this all in the first place,” Stafford says, referring the major 1999 storm that took almost everything he had.
So when Stafford learned of a clearing house organization that, from time to time, would team up with his own non-profit, and offer him the opportunity to claim a tractor-trailer filled with boxes of fresh produce and fruits, the man jumped. It was a no-brainer.
And on Friday, July 24, all the way from South Jersey, he was met, in Wallington, with a truck that was filled with 1,512 boxes of the aforementioned fruits and veggies.
“There were 27 skids with the boxes of mixed produce,” Stafford says. “There was no sorting necessary. All of the food was donated and transported and their expense from the south.
It was, Stafford says, the single-largest one-day donation of food he’s ever coordinated. The 1,500+ boxes of food were split among 25 local organizations, including the Kearny Food Pantry, a combined effort of local pantries, at the First Presbyterian Church of Arlington. That pantry is open Fridays from 10:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. Food will also be taken by a smaller church on Midland Avenue, Kearny, and a few food pantries in Belleville.
The need is still great. And this one truck of food will go a long way.
“In all, this is enough food to feed 50,000 people,” Stafford says happily. “By far it’s the biggest single-day for us.”
Now, this clearing house Stafford mentioned was slated to end soon, with the hopes that by now, the global pandemic, the worst of its kind in over a century, would be over. But there is now a chance it might be extended, given how it appears the effects of COVID-19 are far from over.
So this could happen, again, about a month from now, if there’s still a need.
We say that knowing there will likely be a need. But since Stafford has to rent a forklift, which he himself was planning to operate, organizations will have to basically tell him they’ll accept the donations since, to this very day, Stafford’s organization still doesn’t have a location of its own at which to organize food distribution. More on that later.
We asked Stafford why he believes things are so bad now. His replies, while they may seem basic, were stark, given all the despair he’s seen in over 20 years of doing what he does so well.
“It’s the worst I’ve seen in my life,” he says. “The depth of this crisis is very great. People who have had great jobs, great lives, are coming to food pantries, saying, ‘I never expected to ever have to do this in my life — but if it weren’t for you, I might not have had food.’”
He’s seen, of late, has Stafford, all walks of life. He says there is still a stigma attached to needing to visit a food pantry, unfortunately.
“There’s this mindset that people don’t want to go to pantries because in the past, they might have been the ones donating to them,” he says. “It’s a very humbling experience.”
But he thinks of one man he met who was once on top of the world. He owned several businesses. Then the man’s wife got sick. Then his insurance got canceled. Then he lost his house.
The man, he says, didn’t want to come across as a beggar. But he needed the food. And he took it gratefully, because a human like Stafford has dedicated his entire life to ensuring people never need to go without, like he did two decades ago, when the system failed him as it often does the little guy.
“When you lose everything, there’s not a lot of hope left,” Stafford says. “We always want to show that there’s always light at the end of the tunnel, as hard as that is to accept at times. We’re a safety net and we’re never judgmental. We’re never judgmental in a world that way too often is judgmental. This can happen to anyone.”
And it seems it’s happened to more people this go-round than one might even realize right now. And the cycle, he says, is vicious.
Think of it like this. Over the last few weeks, there’s been a lot of discussion on whether to end the federal unemployment benefits that expire at the end of July. Often overheard in discussions is something like — people, if they get these benefits, have no incentive to go back to work. If they’re getting this extra $600 a week, on top of what they’re getting from the state, there’s no reason to seek work.
It’s all nonsense, Stafford says. Picture this scenario he described. You’ve lost work because of the pandemic. It’s gotten so bad that you are now transient or perhaps homeless. You’ve got nowhere to shower. Nowhere to lay your head at night. Nothing.
Finally, you find a job description that meets your needs. You set up an interview.
When you arrive, you didn’t sleep the night before because you had nowhere to go or your water utility was shut off. When you arrive, your clothes are messy. You stink from not showering the day of the interview. And when the hiring manager asks for your address — boom, you don’t have an address to put down.
“You think that guy’s getting a job?” Stafford says. “Not a chance. It’s not as easy as people make it seem. And that’s because this crisis has been mishandled by the feds from the beginning. It will be very hard for many people to ever recover from this. People have been failed, one after the other. It can’t go on like this much longer.”
But it may. And because many who are food insecure have had mental-health issues, which may very well worsen over time, that light at the end of the tunnel Stafford mentioned earlier may be tougher to find.
“The government positively dropped the ball here,” he says. “There has to be a better way to do this.”
And one way for Stafford to do better would be to have a location to coordinate his efforts. It might not be easy, as he has no way to pay rent, so he needs a generous soul or two out there, reading this story, to consider donating a rent-free location, preferably with a kitchen, where he can sort food, prepare meals for the homeless among many other things his non-profit does. So if that’s you, and you could consider donating space at a $0-a-month rent, Stafford wants to hear from you.
“We’ll certainly take care of the place and maintain it well,” the former painter who often works 18-hour days at a $0-a-week salary, says.
Stafford may be reached by phone at (201) 747-8706.
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Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.