65-year-old Miriam is a familiar face at the Franklin Township Food Bank in Somerset, where she volunteers several times a month. She takes her time with each pantry visitor, helping them carefully and with kindness. She has good reason to understand their struggles, because she’s been there herself. Miriam, like many volunteers, is also a food pantry client.
“I receive my own food help here,” she says in her native Spanish. “I felt a necessity to help. I live close by, so I asked if I could volunteer.” She works part-time at a nearby university, but has no other income. She receives minimal SNAP (food stamp) benefits, but those were recently cut from $85 to $16 a month, in part, she was told, because she earns too much from her job.
Miriam is touched by the plight of those who come through the doors here, and speaks with sadness as she remembers her own hunger crisis. “I didn’t know what I’d do,” she recalls. “There was one day that I had nothing at all to eat. I saw someone pass by with a shopping cart full of bags of food, and they said the name of the food bank, so I looked up the address and walked here.” She arrived at the Franklin Township Food Bank, which has been helping people in Somerset County for more than 30 years, and is one of more than 1,000 CFBNJ partner charities.
Miriam had planned to look for a church to ask for food, or find any kind of help. “De hambre no mi muero,” she says, meaning she refuses to die from hunger. “If I have to choose between food and bills or medicine, food is always my first choice,” she said. “Because if you don’t eat right, you don’t have your health. I had to ask for help with my electricity before when I didn’t have enough for that.”
Miriam is hardly alone in making those wrenching choices. CFBNJ’s most recent Hunger Study shows 77% of the people we assist have had to choose between paying for utilities and buying food, and 73% chose between medicine and food. And many are elderly. 19% of those we help are senior citizens.
Asked what has touched her most as a volunteer, Miriam tells us about one woman who needed to provide proof of her residence, all she had was deportation papers. “That really moved me,” she said. “It made me feel terrible for her. We gave her food, but it made me very sad because of her situation, about to be deported with her kids. I’ve seen many people in that position.”