This article reflects just part of the conversation in the latest episode of “Our Montclair,” a new video and podcast series featuring the art, the activism, the outreach and the connections among people in Montclair. 

See the video, premiering Wednesday, May 6 at 7 p.m. at  Facebook.com/MontclairLocal

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By SHANE PAUL NEIL
For Montclair Local




When the Human Needs Food Pantry started in 1982 as an outreach program of the First Baptist Church of Montclair, it served just 25 people.

In 2020, amid a pandemic that saw economic problems exacerbated and longstanding vulnerabilities under pressure, the pantry was visited 49,000 times, an increase of 7,000 over the previous year. Each client was provided food; among those served were 12,000 children.

In 2019, Human Needs’ client list was 258. In 2020, it increased by about 1,100, according to the organization.

“We’re seeing people who never dreamt they’d be on a food line,” Mike Bruno, the pantry’s executive director for the last eight years, said. “So many businesses laid off people. We’ve had a couple of people who were volunteers that turned up looking for food.”

In its nearly 40 years, Human Needs has grown to be the largest suburban food bank in Essex County, serving registered clients from 14 towns. It’s moved on from a small rented space on Greenwood Avenue in Montclair to a facility at 9 Label St. that holds a food warehouse as well as clothing rooms and a client service area.

The 501(c)(3) nonprofit relies on the donations of individuals, community groups and foundations; it gets no funding from tax dollars to purchase food. Bruno oversees five part-time employees and nearly 100 volunteers.

“We have some really dedicated people,” he said. 

The pantry distributes thousands of bags of groceries every week.

In 2020 it distributed 593,000 pounds of food, as well as provided pet food, nutritional supplements, diapers, wipes, feminine products, personal hygiene products and other goods, according to the pantry. Most of those products were from donors who run their own drives on behalf of the pantry, Bruno said.  

Some years, the food pantry has actually distributed more pounds of food — for instance, in 2016, it gave out more than 900,000 pounds. That’s in part because when the number of clients grew quickly, Human Needs took down the amount of bags given to each, to ensure there was enough to go around — but still increased the number of items each client received, Bruno said. The pantry changed up its strategy, purchasing more of a variety of proteins. Clients were given large boxes of cereal nearly weekly, because children weren’t receiving in-school meals — but those boxes weigh less than the canned goods they might have been given in the past.

Also in 2020, the pantry broke through its own record for distributing turkeys for Thanksgiving — giving out 1,300 of them. Every registered Human Needs client received one, and a surplus was donated to other organizations as well as given to walk-in clients leading right up to the holiday.

People come to Human Needs however they can, Bruno said.

“We have some people who walk here, we have some who take public transportation, we have some who Uber,” he said. Additionally, Human Needs delivers food and supplies to roughly 250 clients who can’t travel, including the elderly and those with serious medical issues. 

According to hunger relief organization Feeding America, in 2019 food insecurity was at its lowest in 20 years — at 34 million cases. That number is projected to balloon to 42 million, or one in eight people, in 2021. Among them are 15 million children, it says.

Eleanor Walter, a Human Needs board member and volunteer who has been a part of the organization for nearly 20 years, said people who make use of the pantry appreciate it’s a “judgment-free zone.”

“Nobody asks why are you here,” she said. “We are all one life event away from something like this. We’re all just here to help each other.”

The pandemic presented difficulties serving clients. Human Needs has had to pause its twice-monthly medical screenings, provided by nurses from Mountainside hospital. The entire operation had moved outdoors, but that wasn’t possible for the screenings. 

food pantries uptick
Clients line up outside Human Needs Food Pantry on Label Street on May 5 of 2020. Groups that help people in need have seen an increase in the number of people needing help due to the pandemic. ERIN ROLL/STAFF

Human Needs also paused its monthly “Upstairs” program, which invites clients to go through several rooms of clothing and household goods donated by community members, because the clients couldn’t be invited inside. The program usually gives away about 250 large bags of clothing and household goods per month.

With more people vaccinated and community spread of coronavirus decreasing, the program’s leadership hopes to have these services available soon. 

Still, Human Needs never shut its core services for an extended time. It closed for a week at the start of the pandemic because of a shortage of available volunteers. The organization’s members spent the week working on the logistics of how to distribute food safely. This meant moving operations outdoors and constructing a teller window to talk to clients. Human Needs rebuilt its volunteer base as plans were put into motion.

“There has been a crew that has been working right through the pandemic. They never left and they’re still here,” Walter said. “There are people we’ve added because they needed something to get them out of the house.”

Some volunteers who’ve been cleared to go back to their jobs deliver food during their lunch breaks, Walter said.

Bruno said, “People are actively looking for more ways to help because they realize how impacted the communities have been. The outpouring has been incredible, whether it’s volunteering or donating.” 

Donations of food and money have been crucial to the pantry’s ability to operate at a high level. Half of the 593,000 pounds of food distributed in 2020 was purchased by the pantry at less than $1 a pound, with the rest donated by individuals or received from the Community FoodBank of New Jersey.

Human Needs Food Pantry Executive Director Mike Bruno and board member Eleanor Walter say the organization has served many people who never expected to need help.
(SHANE PAUL NEIL / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)

According to Human Needs, 90% of all financial donations go directly to those in need. 

Currently, Human Needs is open to clients on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. outdoors. The organization has information for those seeking assistance, looking to make donations or looking to volunteer at humanneedsfoodpantry.org.

Human Needs stresses it can’t currently take general clothing or household goods donations because it doesn’t have the personnel available to sort and sanitize unsolicited items, but it has a “wish list” of needed goods on Amazon. Human Needs can take nonperishable food donations, but asks donors to check expiration dates. It will also accept pet food, toilet paper, facial tissues, sanitizers, diapers, wipes, formula and tall paper grocery bags with handles.