After it was closed for two years because of COVID, the Franklin Food Bank’s most popular offering – the Client Choice Program – has returned.
The Franklin Food Bank has been a source of nourishment for the greater Somerset County community, serving more than 2.5 million meals and 4 million pounds of food to thousands of clients since it opened in 1975. Annually it serves more than 20,000 clients.
And every bag is filled, and meal is given with dignity and respect for those in need, said the food bank’s Executive Director Derek Smith.
"But the Client Choice model was able to better achieve their mission of serving the community’s food needs in an atmosphere of dignity and respect," Smith said. "Our amazing staff and volunteers are dedicated to our mission of neighbors helping neighbors. We've had the pleasure of serving this community for almost 50 years and will be here as long as there are families that need our support. Food insecurity affects all."
Almost as soon as it began, the Client Choice Program had to shutter in 2020 as everything − even a way to distribute food − had to be re-evaluated and reworked. It was like a "war on hunger," Smith said.
The Franklin Food Bank had just moved to a larger location in 2019 and launched the Client Choice Market, which allowed families and individuals to enter the facility and "shop" by choosing their own foods. The market is arranged like a small grocery store with typical food categories like produce, meats, dairy, frozen and bread.
"They could pick out the items they needed and preferred," said the food bank’s Director of Development Allie O’Brien. "It was a huge hit."
The market more than doubled its services. In 2018, the Franklin Food Bank was visited by families for packages 8,665 times. In 2019, it was visited 18,555 times.
During the pandemic, while the Client Choice Program was shuttered, the Franklin Food Bank kept on serving close to 10,000 families from March 2020 to December 2021. The nonprofit reverted to a curbside fixed-bag model for COVID safety, where clients were required to make appointments to pick up food.
"This decision and execution were swift," Smith said. "This program pivot happened overnight, just as the federal emergency was declared. This new fixed-bag model was offered as a curbside program, wherein the staff of the food bank packed up to 300 pounds of food into the cars of our clients. Families were offered up to two visits per month."
Additional programs such as Community Distribution, Beyond Borders, and Serve and Refer also were established.
The client base of the food bank increased from a "reliably static number of 1,800 unique families every year" to more than "4,500 unique families from 2020 to 2021," O'Brien said.
The Franklin Food Bank welcomed 1,000 new families from Franklin Township alone, she said.
"That number represents a 300% growth over 2019, a year already marked by unprecedented growth," O’Brien said.
Now, the relaunched and reopened Client Choice Market offers a more impressive variety and volume of foods than ever before, Smith said.
"The space is both larger and better designed with improved technology and materials – kiosk shelving, display refrigeration and freezers, restaurant pagers to notify clients of their turn, updated check-out tablets and new and larger shopping carts," he said.
Clients call to schedule an appointment, which helps to regulate flow and keep the community safe. Once inside, they are checked in, grab a cart and shop for whatever they want to feed their families. A menu details the categories and items available.
"These menus also list the point value of the items," O'Brien said. "Families are assigned points to shop with on a monthly basis based on the size of their household. There also are many zero-point items including all fresh produce all the time."
Since the relaunch of the Client Choice Program in March, the Franklin Food Bank has served an average of 952 households each month and seen an average increase of 3.5% monthly since May, and as high as 6% in June. The program has served more than 7,600 households with comprehensive food assistance.
Community Distribution continues the first Wednesday of each month at the headquarters of the Franklin Township Community Relations Bureau (“the CRB”), 935 Hamilton St. in the Somerset section of the township. The program begins at 11a.m. and runs until supplies are gone. There is no appointment necessary for this program open to all.
Its newest program, Beyond Borders, allows the Franklin Food Bank to help other nonprofit organizations doing the important work of feeding their neighbors.
"Through Community Distribution and Beyond Borders, the food bank can also help thousands more, broadening the reach and deepening their impact," Smith said. "The hybrid model of the Franklin Food Bank is an innovative way to fight hunger while providing an atmosphere to clients rich in dignity and respect."
The Franklin Food bank is planning more expansion in 2023 with additional services such as nutrition classes and online ordering. It also is partnering with local schools and community colleges to bring services directly to students in need.
"This growth is not possible without our community supporting our efforts," Smith said.
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Cheryl Makin is an award-winning features and education reporter for MyCentralJersey.com, part of the USA Today Network. Contact: Cmakin@gannettnj.com or @CherylMakin. To get unlimited access, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on MyCentralJersey.com: Franklin Food Bank continues to see unprecedented need