From inside, the sound of tires slowly traveling over gravel could be heard.
Then, the faint sound of voices appeared.
Upon exiting the building, the sight of a large box truck filled with dozens and dozens of boxes could be seen. Three men were working to hoist each banana box off the truck and put them onto a series of rolling carts.
Bread. Desserts. Cereal. Onions. Fish. Seafood. Meat. Even sushi.
Box after box after box.
This is practically a daily occurrence at Bentley Community Services (BCS), an alternative food bank/pantry, specifically addressing the needs of families, individuals and seniors who, though perhaps employed, do not receive traditional assistances and are challenged making ends meet.
On April 23 at the BCS site that is located in the Monmouth Junction section of South Brunswick, there were a few extra helpers on scene to help with the intake of the 50 boxes received that morning from Trader Joe’s in Princeton.
Assemblyman Roy Freiman (D-Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Somerset), his Chief of Staff Michelle Timoni, his Director of Community Affairs Rachel Frish, and Tobi Mustafa from Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker’s office (D-Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Somerset) decided to be hands-on and undo each box as it rolled into the building space.
Frish said she had read an article about Bentley, and since April is National Volunteer Month, they wanted to come into the community directly and see the grassroots effort firsthand.
“This feels more authentic,” said Freiman, who has also lent his time to Raritan clean ups, a shelter in Skillman, and gleaning efforts. “[Giving speeches] and supporting people legislatively is important, but this is vitally important, too.”
Now in its sixth year of operation, Bentley has been helping families in financial crisis regain self-sufficiency by providing a full range of high quality grocery provisions and more each week, supplementing income and offsetting grocery bills.
BCS has distributed more than 1.36 million pounds to date, according to Executive Director Dorothy Stearns-Holmes. As the main grocer, Bentley creates access to healthy foods, facilitating healthy diets and nutrition so families benefit weekly from full shopping carts, feeding their families healthy and nutritious foods from the major food groups and more. The families “shop” around the room so they maintain decision-making based on their family’s needs, Stearns-Holmes said.
The crucial monies that families save – usually around $200 – are applied toward paying their monthly bills and expenses, reducing debt, medical bills or making needed repairs as these families work toward financial stability and security, according to Stearns-Holmes.
Providers include Trader Joe’s in Princeton and North Brunswick, Starbucks, McCafferty’s in West Windsor, Wawa, Thomas Sweet, Bonefish Grill, Princeton University, Stop & Shop and area farms. Sixty percent of the food distributed is perishable, and the majority is fresh, organic produce.
“We have very generous providers,” Brant Holmes said.
Before delving into the boxes to separate apples from avocados, and consumable produce vs. that for the deer, Freiman presented Brant and Dorothy Holmes with a proclamation on April 23.
“You’re serving the community and we need more and more people doing what you are doing,” he said.
Then, a large group of volunteers got to work, checking the skids, sorting the food and organizing the donations.
Rob Dienst, Brendan Coyle and Mahima Srivastava from Bloomberg in Skillman, along with Divina Tucci, program manager for the philanthropy team, participated as part of Bloomberg’s sponsorship of philanthropic events in the community, Srivastava said. During work hours, employees have the opportunity to sign up for volunteer efforts based on postings and partnerships around the Princeton area.
Srivastava said she chose to visit Bentley because someone on their team had stopped by before and enjoyed the process.
“We can’t operate without them. They’re very valuable,” Stearns-Holmes said of the Bloomberg volunteers.
In general, about five to eight volunteers help each morning of a delivery, preparing a few hours prior to clients visiting the facility.
“It’s a machine that doesn’t turn off,” Stearns-Holmes said. “We work diligently to get everything done.”
Lead community volunteer Meena Suresh began volunteering four years ago after she heard about BCS from a friend.
“It’s satisfaction I get, that’s the main thing. It keeps me busy,” she said.
Fellow lead volunteer Kavita Pawale said she started eight months ago on Wednesdays and some Saturdays during the winter. She learned about the initiative from Suresh, as they both volunteer for Department of Social Services in South Brunswick.
“It’s just about helping people. And I have the time to spare, so I love coming here to work,” she said.
Aside from the food provisions, BCS goes way beyond the function of a food bank. The families are encouraged to volunteer there. They write thank you notes to providers twice each month. They have access to self defense courses, first aid and CPR classes, financial aid workshops, a nutritionist, stress and anger management and parenting courses. They also have progress reports completed twice each year.
The purpose is to “graduate” families so they become self-sufficient again. In 2018, 17 families graduated, bringing the total to 77 since its inception.
“We equip our families with tools to get them to be self-sufficient,” Stearns-Holmes said. “It’s a community where we serve one another. … In the concept of a community where everyone does the same, it works.”
For the entire month of May, Bentley has been selected as a beneficiary of the Stop & Shop Community Bag Program. The organization will receive $1 for every time a reusable bag is purchased at Stop & Shop, located at 24 Summerfield Blvd., Dayton section of South Brunswick. For more information on the Stop & Shop Community Bag Program, visit stopandshop.bags4mycause.com.
In addition, a free meal is offered from 5-6:30 p.m. Wednesdays at Cornerstore Community Kitchen, which is located at the Princeton United Methodist Church, on the corner of Nassau Street and Vandeventer Avenue, Princeton, through a partnership with the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen. For more information, visit www.princetonumc.org or call 609-924-2613.
Two years ago, BCS outgrew its origins in Belle Mead, and is now located at 4064 Route 1 north in Monmouth Junction, where it serves clientele families that come from the entire Central New Jersey region.
Donations of perishable, non-perishable foods and toiletries are accepted throughout the year. Or, visit the website and donate via PayPal, or mail a donation by check to Bentley Community Services, P.O. Box 1093, Belle Mead 08502.
For more information on Bentley or to inquire about eligibility, call 908-227-0684 or visit www.bentleycommunityservices.org or Facebook.
Contact Jennifer Amato at email@example.com.