PENNSAUKEN Sen. Cory Booker took a Thanksgiving Eve tour of the Food Bank of South Jersey to celebrate its staff and volunteers and call attention to the need that exists in the Garden State.
"We have to have a sense of collective pride and urgency and say, not in our state, not on our watch," Booker (D., N.J.) said Wednesday.
The former Newark mayor did more than walk his way through the Pennsauken facility, which helps feed about 173,000 people a year in 250 programs in Burlington, Camden, Gloucester and Salem Counties.
Booker, with an assist from his mother, Carolyn, also loaded some bags with items such as pancake mix, peanut butter, pork and beans, and juice boxes for KidzPack, a program that provides schoolchildren with food to stave off weekend hunger. Many children eat during the week at school through free or reduced lunch and breakfast programs, but return to homes with scarce or no food.
Ujwala Samant, the food bank's director of programs and services, told Booker that it had expanded its offerings because it found that the Kidzpacks were not just feeding the students taking the grocery bags home. The students were sharing them with siblings and adult caretakers who were hungry as well.
Before his bit of community service, Booker, whose campaign for the Senate included a plan to fight child poverty, was guided through the South Jersey program by chief executive officer Val Traore.
"I bet since 2008 you're really seeing the impact," Booker said.
Traore said that while prospects for some have improved, many people are still hurting.
"Our work here is still critical," she told him.
That work includes collecting and distributing about 10 million pounds of food a year and operating several child and senior feeding programs.
Traore also told Booker about the agency's education efforts. That includes the Healthy Living Initiative that has provided cooking and nutrition classes to more than 6,000 adults, seniors, and children since 2010.
Among those children, she said, are tween-agers whose chores may include feeding their younger siblings.
Booker also paused to chat with student volunteers from Cristo Rey High School in Philadelphia, a private Catholic school that offers college preparation and work-study opportunities to low-income students.
Despite the United States' wealth, he said, many people don't have enough to eat.
"It's a problem we can do something about," he said.
For this Thanksgiving, the food bank was able to make available more than 12,000 turkeys to area households, but Traore said her agency estimated that about 60,000 families in the four counties needed food help this holiday.
Booker's visit was in part a photo op. But food bank officials were thankful for the focus his appearance brought to the issue of hunger.
"We need more public awareness, and he's in a position to get the message out to the public," said Robert M. Brown, president of the food bank's board of trustees.
Traore said Booker was the first senator to visit the food bank.
"It really does mean something for us," she said, "especially on the eve of Thanksgiving."