On a Wednesday, a line of people with shopping carts and boxes makes its way around a makeshift complex — like a small farmers’ market — set back in the Somers Point Volunteer Fire Company 1 parking lot.
They move from table to table, picking up canned food, produce, frozen meats and bread while shielding themselves from the cold, drizzly weather.
The wheel of a woman’s cart, loaded to the top with chicken, peanut butter, salad, potatoes and bread, sticks in the crack of uneven pavement. The cherry pie on top of the mountain of food starts to topple. Tonya Smith runs over to grab it so it doesn’t smash onto the ground.
“Whoa, I got this. Here, let me carry this and some of those bags. Where’s your car?” she asks, following the older woman’s lead as they made their way to the far edge of the parking lot to load the food into the trunk of a car.
Smith, 44, of Somers Point, walked a lot of others to their cars that day, shouldering the weight of bags and carts, if only for a short while.
Smith is the mobile pantry coordinator for the Community FoodBank of New Jersey’s Southern Branch, which serves people in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties. Her job is to oversee mobile pantries that set up shop five times per month for two hours at fire stations, post offices, churches and train commuter lots to help feed the region’s hungriest people. The mobile pantry has become a growing part of the food bank’s mission, delivering nearly 1 million pounds of food a year, officials said.
Dressed in simple jeans, a black hooded sweatshirt and coat, Smith notices an older man shifting from one foot to the other, trying to move a little to ward off some of the cold.
“You have gloves?” she asks him. He says he is just using his coat pockets for warmth. “Wait a minute, I have something for you. I know we have more left. Ah! Here, I knew we had some hand warmers around here.”
The man smiles and rubs the packet between his two bare hands to increase warmth while starting at the beginning of the food line. Another man waiting in line wears old military clothing. A young woman in a sweatshirt stands near a mother with a small child bundled up in a puffy coat.
They’ve fallen on hard times. Some are out of work; others have to prioritize their bills. Food doesn’t always make the cut.
Smith, who comes from a family of Oklahoma school teachers who made gardening and food education a priority, has not experienced food insecurity like her customers have. But life has been difficult in other ways.
It wasn’t easy when she left the casino industry in 2012 after just opening the limousine department at Revel. It hasn’t been easy raising a daughter as a single mom with limited family close by.
Easy isn’t in her vocabulary when remembering how her furniture, possessions and keepsakes were destroyed when 5 feet of water filled her home in Ventnor during Hurricane Sandy.
“We lived in the top floor of our home for months after it was safe to go back. I still wonder if my daughter will be scarred by what happened, because I know I am,” Smith says, looking off into space, remembering the destruction. “They were only things that were destroyed, but some were the only things I had from my family, my life.”
It was only a couple weeks before Sandy that Smith saw an opening at the food bank for an assistant job. She made a quick call, got an interview and was hired almost immediately. Before her work schedule was figured out, the storm hit, delaying the start of her new job for weeks.
“I finally called them and said, ‘Uh, I got hired a couple weeks ago. Do I still have a job?’” she says, laughing. “One of my first days with them was working on a mobile food pantry out in Ventnor, handing out food to people who had lost everything in the storm. I was helping my community directly. And I realized that day, this is what I was meant to do. This is where I belong.”
Kim Arroyo, food bank director of agency relations and Programs, has worked with Smith since 2012, and they’ve become close. Arroyo said going above and beyond the call of duty is routine for Smith.
“She is delivering food to people after hours, getting calls from people asking for help for other assistance,” she says. “It can be very stressful, especially because of the caring kind of person she is, and I want her to be OK after seeing this stuff every day. But she’s out there, every day. She’s really been a blessing.”
Smith recently drove out to an elderly woman’s home with food after noticing her absence from a November mobile pantry. She took hours of her own time researching housing and special-education opportunities for a customer living with an autistic grandson in a motel.
The piles of food on the tables surrounding the mobile food truck in Somers Point get smaller. Smith and volunteers start cutting open more boxes of food and putting out what is left.
Smith sees a woman she knows has a big family with many children. She goes digging into the far corners of the truck for a box with more children’s juice boxes and snacks. She doesn’t stop until she finds them and places them in the woman’s cart.
Smith jumps from table to table, asking if anyone needs help, wearing a special holiday hat she brings out during this time of the year. If she doesn’t wear it, customers demand to know where it is.
Smith and the volunteers aren’t always in Somers Point. They help feed the long lines of seasonal workers down in Rio Grande. They hand out food to people living in motels along the Black Horse and White Horse pikes.
People come with their children. Grandmothers come seeking help with food, housing and education opportunities. Drug addicts linger on the edges of the motels, reminding Smith of the musicians on death’s doorstep she used to write about in a previous career in journalism.
A man yells at her on a Friday mobile pantry in Rio Grande for taking too long to sign people in. She smiles slightly, takes a moment’s beat and just yells back to him that she’s going as fast as she can. They’re all cold that sunny day. Cold and hungry.
“People yell at you just because you’re there. And sometimes I don’t have the answers for them,” Smith says, taking a pause and looking up at the ceiling of her office at the food bank. “I’m a fixer. I’m a Southern granny that way. But I can’t fix everything.”
Volunteers run the mobile pantries until there is no more food left, or until the line ends, whichever happens first.
Smith hugs people goodbye, gives them schedules for the mobile pantry dates for 2017. She hopes that if she doesn’t see them in January, it means they don’t need the food bank’s help anymore, that things have turned their way again.
But she knows she may not see them for other reasons, and the reality of a seemingly never-ending problem hits her hard.
“Every Monday, I wake up hoping that no one has passed away, got into an accident, went to the hospital since I last saw them,” Smith says. “I hope the guy who lives in his car is warm, that the veteran who needed medical help got it.
“People need help. Period. There are highs and lows. There are a lot of good people out there helping, but there needs to be more. I grew up this way. You don’t need accolades or fanfare. Just go and help. That’s all you need to do.”
609-272-7022 NLeonard@pressofac.com Twitter @ACPressNLeonard