In the basement of an annex of the historic Christ Episcopal Church in New Brunswick, New Jersey — where the third public reading of the Declaration of Independence is believed to have taken place in the summer of 1776 — hungry families have been finding assistance for almost 20 years.
Residents of the city and of the surrounding area who are struggling to find a job or whose low income fails to finance all of their daily necessities come to the Christ Church Food Pantry to make sure their families do not go hungry.
In this makeshift, yet organized pantry, attendees have access to fish filets, chicken breasts, eggs, canned and fresh vegetables, fruits, dry staples like pasta and rice and even baby products.
Judith Kuldinow, the pantry’s director, said many members of the local community rely on about 4,000 pounds of food that the pantry receives from donations and various suppliers like the Community Food Bank of New Jersey each month.
“There are a lot of people that are living below the poverty line in New Brunswick,” she said. “There are no new jobs that are coming in.”
According to statistics from the United States Census Bureau, about 34.7 percent of New Brunswick’s population is in poverty, while the median household income stands at $38,435. In the entire state of New Jersey, the median household income is $72,093, and about 10.8 percent of its residents are in poverty.
Despite the evident existing needs of the local community, Kuldinow noted that she has documented a significant decline in the number of people who are coming to the food pantry over the past months. According to records she compiles, there has been a drop of about 50 families over the past months.
She said that recently, when the pantry used to be open four times a month, about 120 people crowded the small pantry and the garden outside each day. Now that they are opened six times a month, she said only about 35 attendees show up each day.
“There is used to be a line outside,” she said.
In 2016, the pantry served 188 families in January, 190 in February and 188 in March, according to Kuldinow’s records. This year, 179 families were served in January, 167 in February and 125 in March — the month with the steepest decline.
Although she is not entirely certain of the catalyst of this change, she said the dwindling attendance could be rooted in today’s political climate.
She indicated that some of the immigrants who attend the pantry — which according to her estimate, comprise over half of the people that have signed up for the program — might be alienated by the rhetoric of President Donald J. Trump and his administration’s policies toward the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants who reside in the country.
According to the United States Census Bureau, 38.3 percent of the city’s population is foreign-born, and as reported by The Daily Targum in its coverage of the sanctuary city debate in New Brunswick, some city residents are undocumented.
“I think some people might be afraid to come in. As I said, they have to show something when they come in,” Kuldinow said.
The organizer said that because of the policies of some of the pantry’s food suppliers, she asks attendees to provide a photo I.D., a proof of address and birth certificates for families who say they have multiple children. But, she said that people are always served the first time they come even if they forget their documentation and emphasized that the pantry does not ask anyone for their immigration status.
“Everybody is welcomed here, everybody is treated the same and everybody leaves with food,” she said.
The shrunken turnout that Kuldinow has recorded follows a trend that is occurring nationwide. This month, WNBC’s I-Team reported that various anti-hunger groups in New York City have documented a decline in food stamp applications and pantry attendance.
Some of the immigrant clients of these anti-hunger groups and food pantries — many of whom are part of mixed status families, meaning that some family members are United States citizens and permanent residents, while some are undocumented immigrants — have told them to erase their information, fearing that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) could get ahold of it.
The organizers of these pantries and anti-hunger groups suggested that their clients’ fears stem from policy changes in Washington, D.C.
A draft executive order from the White House, which was leaked in early February, would expand the definition of a “public — or a person who relies on welfare assistance, like food stamps, from the government."
It would also make immigrants who receive public benefits “for which eligibility or amount is determined in any way on the basis of income” subject to deportation. To date, it is unclear if Trump plans to sign said order.
Kuldinow said her Christian faith is the reason that she deems it right to serve every person who is hungry. With the help of volunteers from the local community, the Episcopal Church’s congregation and various Rutgers student groups, including Circle K and Alpha Phi Delta, she has worked to make the pantry more inclusive.
Bilingual volunteers are present on the days when the pantry opens, nearly all documents are in both English and Spanish and there is even a small play space for children to wait for their parents. Despite these efforts aimed to attract more clients and make existing ones conformable, Kuldinow said she is still worried by the downturn in attendance.
The pantry director stressed that she is especially concerned that some families might be going hungry because of fear. She said that recently, she has even thought about the possibility of immigration authorities coming to the pantry in search of her clientele.
“I would keep my clients in here and lock the door — I would. They have to be safe in here,” she said. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come down to that.”
Camilo Montoya-Galvez is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in Spanish and journalism and media studies. He is a staff writer for The Daily Targum. Follow him on Twitter @camiloreports.