A Promise to Overcome Food Insecurity
East Trenton, a neighborhood in Mercer County, is a community rich in diversity and long-term residents. Situated within Trenton’s large metropolitan area, East Trenton operates more like a small town with a strong nonprofit network. Melissa Mantz, Executive Director of UrbanPromise Trenton, and Liz Leonard, the East Trenton Center Resource Manager for Urban Promise/East Trenton Collaborative, have worked together through the years to support families—particularly through their membership in the East Trenton Collaborative (ETC), an affiliate of NJCC.
In your words, what do you do?
Melissa: At UrbanPromise, we’re here for the kids and teens in East Trenton by providing after-school programs, camp programs, a hiring program and academic coaching. We believe we can reach a child, raise a leader and restore community. We want young people to come back to Trenton and be part of the community.
Liz: I work under the Habitat [for Humanity] umbrella to meet the needs of families in East Trenton. I’ve been working here for 15 years, and part of what I do is operate a food pantry for families who don’t have access to healthy food.
What is the East Trenton Collaborative?
Melissa: It’s a group of organizations focused on community-based strategies and outcomes for particular neighborhoods. ETC gives grants designed to meet needs like housing, environmental concerns, and the other issues that come from living in a traditionally underserved urban setting. Members like us are focused on listening and providing the opportunity to meet needs rather than making decisions on the community’s behalf. Our priority is bringing in more voices to enrich the conversation.
How do you do that?
Melissa: East Trenton is a neighborhood that has been underserved and undervalued for a long time. Residents who live there want to see it change, but they don’t know how to do it. What we need to do is to listen to residents. They know what they need. Eighty percent of our staff is from Trenton, and we’re committed to hearing voices of the community about their needs. Our partnership with Liz is essential. She’s a repository of institutional knowledge and a touchstone for the neighborhood.
Liz: I know it sounds old-fashioned, but I pick up the phone. I have a list of about 55 or 60 residents that normally need help, and I’m always in touch with them. I may not always be able to help, but I’ll listen to what they need and try to meet in the middle.
How did COVID-19 affect families in East Trenton?
Melissa: Many of the families we serve are undocumented immigrants. They were scared, and they were losing their jobs. Immigrant families already live in a state of heightened awareness about their own safety, and when COVID-19 hit, they didn’t have enough information to make proper health decisions. They were disproportionately affected.
Liz: Trying to help undocumented families out is tough. Even though we don’t ask for ID, other places do. And not everyone has insurance. So if they don’t absolutely need to be seen by a doctor, they won’t. They’re too scared to give their name and address. But, in general, COVID amplified the existing income challenges.
Melissa: Food was a huge issue. Before COVID, children were fed three meals a day at school, five days a week, and went home with weekend bags. Children weren’t getting that nutritious food once schools closed.
How did ETC and Urban Promise work together to provide relief to families?
Melissa: Through our partnership with East Trenton Collaborative, we were able to distribute 485 grocery gift cards, which provided 10,500 meals to about 70 families. We also came together to provide over 100 Thanksgiving baskets to East Trenton families with the help of community partners.
How did you reach families?
Liz: I had a list of people who traditionally access the food pantry, so I knew the people who needed food. We put an e-blast out to sign up to receive gift cards to see how many people would sign up. All they had to do was sign up and show proof of address.
Melissa: None of the money came from the government, so thankfully we didn’t have to ask for proof of income. There’s a level of trust that goes both ways. Giving out gift cards gives families freedom. If you need to pay your bills and also need to eat, a gift card means that you can spend $50 on food so that you can make your bill payment. Too many families have to make that choice. Our help comes from a place of true willingness to support people, and not from a place of judgment.
Who are some of the other community partners who took part in the project?
Melissa: In a city with 740 nonprofits, collaboration is mandatory. There’s no sense in rebuilding the wheel every time. East Trenton is special, though. I’ve worked in the homeless and low-income nonprofit area for a long time. When it comes to community building — I’ve not seen anything like this before. It’s not perfect, but our residents are community leaders, thanks to the East Trenton Collaborative. And that’s how it should be.