For the past nine years, a group of volunteers has been helping to raise food for needy families in Mercer County. Among the relationships the groups has formed is with the West Windsor Farmers Market, creating a partnership that brings fresh produce to families dealing with food crises, both short and long term. And this year, the effort is continuing through the winter.
Yes We CAN! Food Drives got its start during the 2008 election, when volunteers campaigning for Barack Obama collected donations of non-perishable foods at the Democratic office in Princeton. Those donations were sent to Crisis Ministry, which in 2016 switched its name to Arm in Arm.
Arm in Arm is a Trenton-based organization that offers food, housing and job support to people in need, people who are unemployed, underemployed and homeless in Mercer County. They also help veterans and deliver foods to senior citizens. It was founded 37 years ago by Trinity Church and Nassau Presbyterian Church.
"We partner with our community to achieve stability for our neighbors in need," said Carolyn Biondi, executive director for Arm in Arm. "We do so by providing food, housing assistance and job support to low-income people in Mercer County. Our largest service is food distribution through our food pantries, so we're helping to fight hunger and promote food security for families in Mercer County."
People using the food pantry may be going through a rough stretch because of an unexpected expense, or loss of income, and may use the pantry just once. Others are in need of the pantry's service on a longer basis. The pantry is set up like a supermarket so that people take things home to prepare meals.
Fran Engler, one of Yes We CAN's founders, said the volunteers wanted to continue their food-raising efforts after the election.
"So our group got together, we never called ourselves a board, or an organization with rules and bylaws and all of that," Engler said. "We're really just a group of volunteers."
Those volunteers continue their mission through food drives at McCaffrey's in Princeton and Pennington Quality Market. A drive at the ShopRite in Lawrenceville before Easter collected 1,500 pounds of food, according to Engler. Volunteers ask shoppers for a donation, or provide a list of things Arm in Arm needs. Engler said that over the years, Yes We CAN! has collected 150 tons of food.
Biondi said Arm In Arm receives donations from throughout the community via partnerships with schools, congregations, civic groups, small businesses and food drives held by larger corporations.
"Yes We CAN! is one of our strongest supporters in terms of collecting food for us throughout the year," she said.
Yes We CAN! also has a special relationship with the West Windsor Farmers Market. The outdoor market is held weekly from April up until Thanksgiving, and Yes We CAN! is there every other week. The market also holds indoor markets at the Windsor Athletic Club, 99 Clarksville Road in West Windsor.
This year, the indoor markets are taking place twice a month (past years saw one a month), on the first and third Saturdays of each month, and Yes We Can will be at markets held Dec. 16, Jan. 20, Feb. 17, March 17 and April 21.
The system used for donations at the markets connects shoppers, farmers and Arm in Arm. People can make donations at Yes We CAN's booth, and that money is then spent at tables run by farmers. Or shoppers can buy food from farmers and vendors and donate what they purchased to Yes We CAN!
"We let people know we're collecting food or cash so that we can help people with hunger emergencies," Engler said. "They've been extremely generous."
Biondi said Yes We CAN's work is helping Arm in Arm fulfill an important part of its mission in helping people.
"Fresh food is just so welcome in their diet and for their recipes they're making at home," she said. "We feel incredibly lucky that they have chosen us to benefit so that we often have a wonderful offering of fresh food for the people who come to us. Hunger is a real hardship, it's painful to be hungry and it's a hardship to not be able to eat healthily. Getting this donated produce is such a benefit to us."
For the 2017 spring and summer markets, Yes We CAN! raised more than 10,000 pounds of food, plus $7,700 in cash that was used to buy food.
Engler said the farms also help.
"At the end of the market day, which is about 1 o'clock, many of the farmers will bring us their produce that they can't sell because they're not going to have another market day," Engler said. "We get very generous donations of tomatoes, apples, collard greens, onions, all sorts of things."
Chris Cirkus, manager of the West Windsor Farmers Market, said the model used by Yes We CAN! allows the farmers and vendors to contribute without losing money.
"For us the reason that it really works is that we never ask our farmers for handouts, people give cash donations as they're shopping," Cirkus said. "You'll walk by and put a couple of dollars in the can and then the volunteers go and shop from the farmers. So they're spending money, there's commerce at the market. That's a big difference from a lot of different models in that they're specifically asking farmers for donations at the end of the market day. So the farmers, in turn, have become extremely generous in their pricing and are selling wholesale or less, so at least they're covering their cost. What we find is that they're even more generous in that they do end up giving produce."
Farmers know in advance which markets yes We CAN! will be at through newsletters and text updates, so that they bring more food when the volunteers are there. At the market's closing, a truck is loaded, and the food is brought to the pantry in Trenton. Yes We CAN! purchases food that has a shelf life, avoiding foods that rot fairly quickly. It also asks Arm in Arm which vegetables people tend to use and which tend to get ignored.
Cirkus said other vendors aside from the farmers have gotten involved as well. LoRe' Pasta, which makes pasta with locally sourced grain, vegetables and eggs, allowed customers to add $1 to the cost of the purchase, and for every dollar, owners Mario and Richard Zeck donated a pound of pasta to Arm in Arm.
Cirkus said that brought a food to the pantry that otherwise wouldn't get there because the pasta is high end, and not the type of item people buy to donate. The Zecks' efforts led to 30 pounds of their pasta being donated after the first indoor market of the winter.
Another aspect of Yes We CAN's mission is educating people about the need to help people who don't have enough food — families sitting at empty tables or kids who aren't getting enough fresh fruits and vegetables. Engler said that during markets, she'll ask children whose parents made a donation if they'd like to go to the farmers' tables and see what their money can buy.
"And most of them say yes," she said. "Last time we were there, I took a child with me, their parents come with us of course, and I told the farmer that we had $5, and what could we get. The child wanted to get apples and he wanted to get gala apples, he knew very specifically what he wanted. So she gave him a whole basket of apples, much more than the $5 would have bought. it was a wonderful lesson and then I said, 'Who's going to get this?' And he said, 'Children who don't have enough to eat,' and I said, 'Can you think about what that would be like?' And so we had a dialogue about that."
Another way to help is to become a volunteer. Engler said volunteers can participate in just one drive a year, or weekly during the summer markets. Information about volunteering for Yes We Can is available at the Arm In Arm website: www.arminarm.org.