The J Factor, by Jacob Schreiber: The little engine that can

Bonnie Lasker volunteers to stock shelves with nutritious food for clients at the Anja Rosenberg Kosher Food Pantry at Jewish Family Services, 333 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford.

On a freezing cold winter evening in West Hartford, a petite woman with salt and pepper hair tied in bun is methodically picking out groceries and placing them into a single brown paper bag. She chooses generic brands of tuna, canned beans and vegetables, pasta, condiments, cereal and cleaning supplies to go with her package of bread, eggs and pastries, packed separately in another bag.

Like too many others, this woman frequently visits the Anja Rosenberg Kosher Food Pantry at Jewish Family Services, where people who are food insecure receive the critical extra help they need so they don’t have to choose between paying their utility and medical bills or buying food when their money from work or government assistance programs runs out.

“My daughter is in her third year at the University of Chicago,” says the woman with the bun, who is employed as a preschool teacher. “Being able to come here is a blessing.”

I was surprised to hear that someone with a steady job and a child in college was at a food pantry. “You shouldn’t be,” says Susan Fried, the Anja Rosenberg Kosher Food Pantry coordinator. “Most of the people who come to our pantry have jobs or are elderly. Often, there are also extenuating circumstances or other issues at play that further result in their need for food assistance.”

This seemed apparent from the other clients I met that night.

One couple came to the pantry to bring home food for more than just themselves. While the woman took cereal, animal crackers, JoJos and peanut butter off the shelves, her husband told me they have three grandchildren at home.

Another woman I spoke with said she currently has four kids at home.

Each person I met told a different story, and all were doing their best, given their unique situations.

Approximately 118,000 people in Hartford and Tolland Counties — or one out of every nine of our neighbors — “struggle with hunger,” according to Foodshare, the regional food bank that serves these counties. This includes 33,000 children, “who aren’t getting the food they need to learn and grow.”

Founded in 2002, the Anja Rosenberg Kosher Food Pantry serves approximately 700 people from all faiths and walks of life, distributing 60,000 pounds — or 4,000 bags of food, toiletries and cleaning supplies — annually.

Clients of JFS therapists are able to use the pantry once a week, while people who just have a need for food are able to come twice a month. This is very generous, as many food pantries limit usage to once a month.

The pantry also provides food to anyone who shows up at its doors for the first time, but all prospective clients have to complete a needs-based application, patterned after Foodshare guidelines.

The number of bags clients can take home is based on family size. And unlike some food pantries where clients receive premade bags of goods, the Anja Rosenberg Kosher Food Pantry is an “open choice pantry,” where clients fill their own bags with items that fit their needs in a dignified manner.

These are astounding achievements, particularly the limited staff and diminutive size of the pantry. Powered in part by a core of 15 dedicated volunteers, who sort the food donations, stock the shelves and assist “shoppers” to select and carry their items, the pantry arranges its food in what looks like two converted closets — one measuring about 8 x 4 feet and the other half its size.

How the shelves are arranged is very intentional. Healthy items are placed at eye-level and clearly marked, and volunteers are asked to gently guide shoppers toward these goods.

“Providing nutritional food choices is very important to us,” says Fried. “Hypertension and diabetes are a real issue with this population, so we try to give our clients a gentle nudge.”

Based on its impressive record of service to the community, JFS recently partnered with the Town of West Hartford to launch the Anja Rosenberg Kosher Food Pantry’s Youth Hunger Project. Through this “Snack and Cereal” program, healthy snacks will be distributed to JFS client families with school-age children.

Still, the good people at the Anja Rosenberg Kosher Food Pantry all recognize that so much more needs to be done to curtail hunger in our back yard. “The third largest amount of our clients live right here in the 06117 zip code,” says Fried.

The former Director-General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Jacques Diouf once said, “hunger is not an issue of charity, it is an issue of justice.”

Let’s all pursue justice and join the fight against hunger by donating money, goods or time to the Anja Rosenberg Kosher Food Pantry, Foodshare or a food pantry or soup kitchen near you.

For more information about the Anja Rosenberg Kosher Food Pantry at JFS, or to make a donation or fill out an application to receive services, please call 860-236-1927 or visit www.jfshartford.org.

The J Factor highlights Jewish community issues, people and impact. The column is written by Jacob Schreiber, president and CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford. A West Hartford resident, Jacob lived in Israel for eight years and has dedicated his career to piloting Jewish organizations, including a Hillel, JCC and Jewish Family Services, and impacting lives through values-based processes. An award-winning journalist, Jacob was the editor of the Atlanta Jewish Times and a staff writer for The Jerusalem Post, for which he reported from Jordan, Syria and Israel. He holds a master’s degree in Arab-Israeli Affairs from The Hebrew University. He welcomes your comments and can be reached at jschreiber@jcfhartford.org.

Healthy foods are an important source of nutrition and a vital component of the goods offered to clients at the Anja Rosenberg Kosher Food Pantry. The wish list of healthy donations needed at the pantry includes:

Dried fruit — no added sugar

Almond milk (shelf stable and unsweetened, regular size as opposed to economy size)

Protein bars

100 percent natural nut butters

Jarred gefilte fish

Granola

Canned vegetables

Quinoa

Oatmeal

Whole grain crackers

Cereal

People can drop off their donations to the Anja Rosenberg Kosher Food Pantry during these hours — Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. — 3 p.m. There is also a donation bin at the Mandell Jewish Community Center, 333 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford.

Connecticut Media Group