The guest list for the wedding reception numbered 600 eaters and drinkers, and executive chef Jeff McNamara and his staff at Pines Manor in Edison had prepared a nuptial feast of braised ribs and pan-fried chicken with demi-glace sauce.

But the day before the big day last month, McNamara and Pines Manor co-owner Joe Amore learned that 200 of the guests would not be attending due to the omicron outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, which had made some sick, quarantined others and made the rest reluctant to travel or gather in large numbers at an indoor event.

So rather than let those 200 gourmet meals go to waste, Pines Manor helped feed the growing number of people who were going hungry due to the economic impacts of the virus, by donating the unused beef and chicken platters to Elijah’s Promise, a pantry in New Brunswick where the need has tripled since the start of the pandemic and increased with cases linked to omicron COVID-19 this holiday season.

“We reached out to Michelle at Elija’s Promise to ask her, ‘Can you use this food?’ And I was so thrilled when she said yes, she could,” McNamara told NJ Advance Media, referring to executive pantry director Michelle Wilson. “She immediately jumped at the chance and said ‘Great, Jeff! Can you bring that here tomorrow? »

He could, and the food was then transferred to individual serving vessels for the recipients to take home to eat.

There are signs that the omicron surge is easing after the fast-spreading variant surfaced in New Jersey on Dec. 3 and spiked the state’s average daily caseload for a period of 7 days to peak at 27,914 on January 10. This 7-day average daily figure was down 47% on Wednesday morning, when the actual number of new cases for the previous 24-hour period was 8,467, along with 145 confirmed deaths from the virus.

But as the omicron continued to rise, despite occasional silver linings like the one at Pines Manor, the variant hung a cloud over the holiday season, compounding the pandemic’s already devastating impact on food security and darkening the outlook for a new year that some had hoped would at least mark the beginning of a return to normal.

And hunger professionals say the surge could have a delayed impact on need, with associated job losses or other economic hardship manifesting weeks or more after cases begin to recede.

“It was a tough time,” Wilson said.

Jessica Elle of Freehold helps with Thanksgiving at Elijah’s Promise Soup Kitchen in New Brunswick. This year, the soup kitchen is offering a take-out Thanksgiving dinner during the pandemic. Thursday, November 26, 2020.Patti Sapon | NJ advance media

At Elijah’s Promise, for example, demand for food in December 2021 increased by 44% compared to the same month in 2020, according to figures provided by Wilson. Last month, Wilson said, the food pantry provided a total of 32,312 meals to men, women, children and seniors from all walks of life, up from 22,432 meals provided in December 2020, during the first season of the pandemic to be joyous.

December 2020 had already marked a peak in food demand above pre-pandemic levels, when Elijah’s Promise provided 9,529 meals in December 2019, three months before the first case of the virus was confirmed in New Jersey. in March 2020. Despite the disheartening numbers, Wilson was heartened by the thoughtfulness and generosity of Pines Manor and other donors, whether providing food, supplies to pack and distribute, or money to buy these things and pay for other expenses.

“We saw the best in humanity,” Wilson said. “Everyone gave what they could, from small donations to large ones. If we were able to go from 9,000 meals per month to 32,000, it is thanks to the generosity of our donors.

Adele LaTourette, director of the Hunger Free New Jersey program at the Center for Food Action, a nonprofit advocacy organization, said omicron has increased the need for food across the state, while making it more difficult to hunger relief, in part because omicron’s transmissibility has discouraged and sidelined volunteers and staff members of hunger relief groups.

“It certainly had an impact on the number of people in need, as well as the ability of providers to meet the need,” said LaTrourette, who did not have statewide numbers to quantify the growing need. “Providers are losing staff because of illness or because people are afraid of getting sick. And it’s hard both to find the food they need and to afford it.

A statewide indicator measuring the number of people experiencing food insecurity for the first time is new applications to the New Jersey Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, a program administered by the State and federally funded, formerly known as food stamps. There were about 20,000 new SNAP apps in December 2021, according to state Department of Social Services spokesman Tom Hester.

Applications were actually down 5% from the 21,000 received by the department in December 2020. But the number of new applications last month was still 67% higher than the 12,000 received in December 2019 before the pandemic.

In terms of total SNAP enrollment levels, there were 460,000 households enrolled last month, Hester said. This represents an increase from a total of 340,600 registered households in December 2019, when SNAP registrations had actually declined by 4.9% from the previous year, suggesting that hunger had decreased in the region. New Jersey before the pandemic reversed the trend.

To prevent the pandemic from eating away at New Jerseyans’ food budgets, Hester said Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration is increasing outreach and assistance with SNAP requests for eligible residents, including seniors, students and immigrants. Since the pandemic began, Hester said the state has distributed more than $2 billion in additional food aid through SNAP.

At Fulfill, a regional food bank in Neptune that supplies nearly 300 local pantries, soup kitchens and other locations in Monmouth and Ocean counties, demand for food has increased sharply during the pandemic as a whole. But Fulfill spokeswoman Karla Bardinas said that since last week the organization has not seen a significant increase specifically related to the recent coronavirus outbreak – at least not so far.

Crisis pantry

At Neptune’s Fulfill Food Bank, Nok Karnchanapee and Joan Eickmeyer pre-loaded boxes for hungry beneficiaries in Monmouth and Ocean Counties at the start of the pandemic in March 2020. Pre-loaded bags or boxes limit choice but minimize time pick-up, thereby reducing the risk of transmission, a strategy still used by pantries around the state.Ed Murray | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

“We haven’t seen a spike in the Omicron variant yet, but we expect to see an impact as more people get sick and can’t work,” Bardinas said in an email. Bardinas noted that as a regional distributor of foods that must be stored and transported to individual locations, Fulfill cannot accept prepared foods originally intended for weddings or other catered events. “However, we would take frozen meats, shelf stable produce and items,” she added.

The Father English pantry in Paterson, meanwhile, welcomes prepared food donations, which often result from situations like Pines Manor.

“Food that was prepared for an event that had to be canceled, food that was for a wedding that had to be canceled,” said Carlos Roldan, program director for the Paterson Diocese of Catholic Charities, who manages Father English and two other pantries. , in Dover and in the township of Franklin. “It’s very good, but sometimes it’s a problem because they give us huge trays of food. This food that is already made, people are asked to put it in small trays, which is good for the homeless.

That’s partly a problem, Roldan said, due to the labor shortages Father English and other pantries have experienced as a result of the deadly and debilitating coronavirus and even the side effects of certain measures to contain it. Roldan said some of his regular volunteers have been sick or quarantined, while some are worried about contracting the virus, particularly the fast-spreading omicron variant.

Still others, he said, were rendered ineligible to work at the pantry under an order from the governor in August requiring workers at certain public and private facilities to be vaccinated or regularly tested, a response in part to the particularly deadly delta variant that preceded the omicron.

“Right now we only have four or five volunteers on a regular basis, we had 15 or 20,” Roldon said.

Roldan and others said placing prepared foods in the kind of trays restaurants use for takeout orders has been essential during the pandemic, not just for pantries like Father English, but even for soup kitchens. which had traditionally hosted sit-down meals but now discourage recipients from congregating or in the evening lingering on site to minimize the risk of transmission.

This strategy resulted in a reduced choice in terms of the types of groceries best suited to each recipient or their family. At Father English, for example, recipients can always choose what type of frozen meat to take home, but otherwise they are given a take-out bag of standard staples.

Nicole Williams, spokeswoman for the Community Foodbank of New Jersey in Hillside, said that regardless of the ups and downs of the pandemic, its two-year continuous grind has had a cumulative impact even on people who otherwise , might appear to be in a stable situation, COVID-free, employed and at home, but hungry nonetheless.

Williams said some of those people may still be suffering from lingering effects of the pandemic, such as reduced work hours or a prior spell of unemployment that emptied their bank account or forced them into debt that they wouldn’t. cannot repay without reducing their food budget.

“A lot of people are still coping since the pandemic started,” Williams said. “A lot of businesses have been closed. A lot of people have had to dip into their savings, or they don’t have any left. And omicron is definitely not helping.

A State on Edge: If you need food, I'll bring it to you

At the New Jersey Community Food Bank warehouse in Hillside, Cadet Carlos Pineda of the New Jersey Wing of the Civil Air Patrol stacked emergency meal kits early in the pandemic.

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Steve Strunsky can be reached at [email protected]