Taking It to the Streets

Schoke JFS's Mobile Food Pantry Meets Clients Where They Are

We learned of Schoke Jewish Family Services (Schoke JFS) from Westport resident Jillian Klaff. An advocate, volunteer, and board member, Jillian told us about all of the amazing services they provide, such as home companions, counseling services, kosher food pantry, and education programs. 

“These services aren’t just for Jewish people,” explains Jillian. “They are for anyone who is down on their luck, who are going through bad times, which could happen to anyone.”

Though headquartered in Stamford, Schoke JFS is eager to expand its reach across Fairfield County, to better serve the underserved.

They realized not everyone who needs help can come to their offices. So they decided to go to them. According to Chief Program Officer Leah Schechter, “Maybe they can’t get out of the house, or they have no money for a bus. Now we can meet a client where they’re at.”

They began researching trucks from charities across the country in 2021. Last November, one year ago, their bespoke pantry-on-wheels struck out on its “native voyage.”

The pantry includes ample space, two industrial freezers, two industrial refrigerators, and potential-pandemic-friendly shelf space accessible from the outside, like “an outdoor market.”

Only hitch - would people feel comfortable receiving charity in a public space? 

Thankfully, our current consumption culture has paved the way to altruism al fresco. “We have festivals of trucks that serve food. The idea that someone comes to our truck for food is no longer shameful,” explains Leah. “A piece of stigma is removed.”

Schoke JFS envisioned serving 50-100 families on their first outing. They were wrong; it served 400 families.

Fun fact: their food pantries began 20 years ago, when a bar mitzvah student approached CEO Matt Greenberg about creating one. CEO Matt Greenberg wondered - who needs that? 

Still, Matt agreed to the mitzvah project, and Schoke JFS allocated the boy a cabinet in a closet for shelf-stable items. Then they added fresh produce once a month for roughly 30 families. “It was a farmer’s market in our conference room,” smiles Leah. 

Now they have a separate building, the truck, and are serving folks throughout all of Fairfield County. “We could open the pantry six to seven days a week and have the truck in a different location every day and it still wouldn’t be enough,” says Leah.

But getting food to households isn’t all the truck has accomplished. Volunteers are seeing clients in their worlds, and the conversations are lighter and easier than within the Schoke JFS center walls.

“We’re here to take care of the whole person,” Leah states. And to the clients, who volunteers meet where they are, “it feels more dignified.”

Which, happily, includes providing for the holidays, for which they’ve been preparing since September.

Despite their year-round focus on nutrient-dense foods, at holiday time they offer clients “food items that feel like home and are culturally significant” which, hopefully, brings a bit of joy to food-insecure residents.

They begin collecting special items 90 days in advance of the feasts. So at their monthly grocery pick-up in December, clients find festive items alongside the basics: cans of pie filling, oil and potatoes for latkes, eggs, cheeses, flour, butter, salt and pepper; ingredients we take for granted but many don’t have in their homes. Every home deserves a celebration. 

If you’re considering donating to Schoke JFS or other food pantries, please consider:

  • Clients typically have nominal food storage. Many are elderly, in a single or two-member household, and are on disability. Some are homeless. Small or single-serve items are preferred.
  • Costco items are best for meal/soup kitchens.
  • While it feels wonderful to give food donations, also consider a monetary donation so pantries can purchase what they most need.
  • The Schoke JFS truck is outfitted with refrigerators and freezers for much-needed perishable items. If you wish to donate perishables, please contact them to learn how best to do so. (See web address below.)
  • Remember, the Schoke JFS truck is kosher. If you wish to donate groceries that are not kosher, please consider Homes with Hope, Filling In the Blanks, or another food pantry.

Oh - if you’re looking for volunteer opportunities for both parents and kids, consider food deliveries or packing grocery bags for clients. It’s a rare chance to help other people as a family.

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