Volunteers on mission to boost area food banks

United Way volunteers will pack thousands of meal kits to stock local food pantries throughout the region at Campbell Field in Camden Wednesday, April 9, 2014. ( DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer )

Before packing boxes of food to be delivered to pantries around the region, 500 volunteers helped themselves to a buffet of bagels, fresh fruit, and yogurt.

"All of us here, we started the day with breakfast, we all have a job, and we all have health care," said Steveanna Wynn, executive director of the SHARE Food Program, which partnered with United Way in the third annual United2Feed event. Addressing the volunteers, she added, "But think of the thousands who have none of that. Think, for your family, if you lost your job today, how long would it take before you started looking for help?"

The volunteer day brought 500 corporate and community members from Philadelphia and South Jersey to Campbell's Field to pack 60,000 meals that will eventually go to 5,000 families and individuals by way of local food pantries.

It's the third year of the event and the first time it was held in South Jersey. United Way of Philadelphia merged with United Way of South Jersey 18 months ago.

"The stock market might be going up, but the view from our local window is still tough," said Jill Michal, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey. Michal said this is an important time of year to aid the food pantries in the region because donations are not as common as during the holiday months.

Wednesday morning, volunteers from Independence Blue Cross; CSL Behring, a biotech research and development company; and FMC, a specialty chemical maker, joined SHARE Food and United Way, leaving behind their desk jobs and fluorescent lights for a sunny 60-degree day of outdoor assembly-line food packing.

"It feels great to do a little bit to help," said Nina Budzichowski, 33, an executive assistant at FMC who volunteered. "Growing up, my family had some issues, and there were Thanksgivings when our church would send us a basket of food, so it's something I'm familiar with and it's close to my heart."

Budzichowski stood in a line of coworkers ready to unload large boxes of cans, rice, and nonperishable items to distribute among smaller family-size packages.

Food insecurity in Philadelphia and South Jersey is a serious problem.

Camden is consistently ranked among the nation's most impoverished cities, and Southeastern Pennsylvania's First Congressional District - which includes central and South Philadelphia, Chester City, and other sections of Delaware County - is considered one of the hungriest places for families in the United States, said Wynn, who has headed SHARE Food since 1989.

"It's worse now than it's ever been. People are having unprecedented struggles finding full-time jobs, food costs are going up, gas bills are going up, income is not going up. Today, when a family member loses a job, that's it."

Wynn said many of those who need help are often reluctant to accept it, having never been in the situation before. "Their whole life, they're employed, and now they don't know where to go and the longer it drags on, the more it sucks out of you."

The food will be delivered to Philabundance, Chester County Food Bank, Coalition Against Hunger, the Food Bank of South Jersey, the Montgomery County Community Action Development Commission, and the SHARE Food Program.

Wynn said she was pleased with the turnout - a slight increase from the last two years - but emphasized that communities and companies can help even more. "The fact there are this many people here today says a lot," she said, "but there are so many who could do more, a lot more."


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