EAST RUTHERFORD — Henry Zuniga is in front of the line every week. He parks his beat-up gray sedan just outside the Meadowlands YMCA at 5 a.m. The temperature at that time can be below 30 degrees, and his car heater barely works.
He’s cold, but his 16 grand- and great-grandkids are counting on him for food. So he adjusts his “World’s Best Grandpa” hat and waits four more hours for his weekly ration.
Unfortunately, Zuniga’s story is one of many. There are hundreds of cars lined up for the emergency food supply every week.
“Things are hard. My daughter lives upstairs with her three kids, and my other daughter is a block away with the rest,” said Zuniga, 70. “I just want to bring some food to the house.”
The Meadowlands YMCA partnered with Table to Table and the Community Food Bank of New Jersey in March to give food to families in need. Volunteers usher in cars shortly after 9 a.m. while others prepare food in a midsize gymnasium. Each car gets two to three boxes containing dairy products, chicken, assortments of vegetables and meal kits, enough to make 40 to 50 meals. No ID or proof of residency is required to receive food.
When the YMCA began handing out meals in March, it distributed 15,000 to 75,000 a month. Now it gives more than 200,000 meals. In addition, the Meadowlands YMCA is losing some funding at the end of December, meaning it could close down its food distribution sector soon after. The organization desperately needs government funding or donations to continue, said David Kisselback, CEO of the Meadowlands YMCA.
“There have been food insecurities for a long time in our country. This was the tipping point for many families,” Kisselback said. “We’re funded through December, but without additional funding, we don’t know how we can keep this going.”
Kisselback added, “And remember, we’re in one of the wealthiest communities in the country. If we go away, where are those hundreds of meals going to be supplied? They aren’t.”
The economic free fall from the coronavirus pandemic is projected to plunge 50 million people into food insecurity by the end of this year, according to new statistics from Feeding America. That includes 17 million children.
Additionally, 40% of Americans report that for the first time, they have struggled to afford something to eat. Experts say it is likely that there’s more hunger in the United States today than at any point since 1998, which is when the Census Bureau began collecting food-insecurity data.
Furthermore, 12 million more people will lose their unemployment benefits on Dec. 26. And there is no new package of government assistance in sight. Kisselback said food insecurity is indicative of other issues.
“You also have to think: What else is going on? Are they not getting their medication? Are they not getting health treatment?” he said. “This is like the Great Depression, and you begin to wonder: When does it end? When do people get a sense of not having to worry about food?”
Comparisons to the Great Depression bread lines echoed throughout the YMCA. One volunteer called the scene heartbreaking. But the groups waiting in their cars appreciate the hard work.
“When you’re hungry, you’ll eat the bark off the tree, you’ll boil your shoes, you don’t care,” said Hackensack resident Carmelo Amaranto, 54. “People are giving their time to help us. We’re getting a two-week supply of food. Yeah, we’re waiting for four hours, but what they’re doing here is very admirable.”
You can make a donation to the Meadowlands YMCA at meadowlandsymca.org.
Isaiah McCall is a local reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.