By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
The Human Needs Food Pantry on Label Street, the largest suburban food bank in Essex County, rarely misses a beat. Even amid the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, as demand skyrocketed and lockdowns made operations difficult, it kept serving residents of Montclair and beyond.
Last Thursday was an exception — but a limited one. It missed a single food distribution date, usually scheduled for Tuesdays and Thursdays, as the staff and volunteers began making their way through flooded facilities and damaged equipment.
“We took about three to four inches of water in our building,” Executive Director Mike Bruno said Saturday, still cleaning up from the Ida floods that overwhelmed so much of Montclair the night of Wednesday, Sept. 1. “Our computer systems are under our desks, so they’re shot. Our phone system is out.”
Waters overflowing from a nearby brook overtook Label Street, Bruno said. Those same floodwaters caused enough damage to Egan & Sons, adjacent to the pantry on Walnut Street, that the restaurant announced last week it would be closed until further notice.
There’s no telling how long repairs at Human Needs will take. It’s not just a matter of water, but mud. Several inches made it into the pantry’s freezer and froze, and had to be chopped out. Bruno had been spending the past few days working on the cleanup (including with the help of volunteers the day after the storm), trying to sort out equipment issues with Verizon, and taking stock of the damage.
But no one was hurt, Bruno said. And the pantry’s food supplies, up on pallets, were safe. Some data may have been lost on the computers, but the most important information — the pantry’s client list — was safely stored in web services.
Come Tuesday, Sept. 7, Human Needs expected to continue its food distribution as usual.
It’s a large community that depends on the pantry. Prior to the pandemic, about 800 to 900 families were registered with it. Human Needs took on about another 1,200 registrants after the pandemic hit.
In a typical week, Bruno said, the pantry does about 250 deliveries to homebound individuals. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, about 120 to 130 walk-in clients are provided with food packages.
All of that will continue uninterrupted. So will the pantry’s previously scheduled availability for donations on Sept. 11 — usually held once a month. This time around, the pantry is asking donors to provide items including herbs, spices and olive oil in plastic bottles, in addition to the usual food supplies.
But the flooding did put off one service. During the pandemic, Human Needs suspended its “Upstairs” clothing distribution, where clients could browse through donated clothes on the building’s second flood. The pantry planned to resume that service over the coming week, but will instead push that back until October to focus on its own recovery, Bruno said.
“The clothing is as important, we know,” Bruno said. “I’m sure we have clients who live in basement apartments who lost everything. So we’ll do that as soon as we can, but not yet.”
He said for the staff and volunteers at the pantry, “it’s going to be a bit of a slow go for the next week or two, trying to get anything organized.” People have been sopping up the mess with wet-dry vacuum cleaners. Bruno’s still trying to figure out what can be recovered from the pantry’s computers, and whether they can be repaired.
“We had huge bulk packages of paper towels, diapers — those all acted like sponges. Anything that was not on a pallet was floating. We lost letterhead, envelopes. We’re still sorting it all out,” he said.
Toni’s Kitchen, the food ministry of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, halts grocery distributions to its clients the week before Labor Day every year, but clients are given extra supplies the week prior to that. Its hot meals for individuals experiencing homelessness and others in need continued after the storm.
But because neither it nor Human Needs was available for food distributions immediately after Ida, the Northeast Earth Coalition urged residents to step up donations to its network of Little Free Food Pantries, spread out through Montclair and other communities.
Donations of food can be made by first contacting [email protected]. Monetary donations can be made via the group’s website, at neearth.org/donation. To volunteer to distribute food, contact the coalition at [email protected]