Falling in line with the century-old Jewish Family & Community Service’s mission to “help people help themselves,” JFCS’s Max Block Food Pantry does not discriminate when it comes to helping families with children, seniors, and other adults, who are forced to cope with life’s challenges within the First Coast Community.
“The most recent statistic for Duval County is that one out of four people do not know where their next meal will come from,” said JFCS Executive Director Colleen Rodriguez. “That indicates that we have a significant food insecurity problem in our community. JFCS served over 80,000 meals out of our pantry last year, and that supports this statistic,” she said, adding that although the nonprofit does not provide hot meals for its clients, it does give them enough to eat three times a day for three days for each person in a household.
The Max Block Food Pantry focuses on providing staples – peanut butter, cereal, pasta, rice, canned goods, proteins, vegetables, and bread – as well as diapers, formula and hygiene products, when they are donated, said Rodriguez. It also receives food from community food drives, Publix, and Farm Share.
“We are a major player in this area but are very different from the type of feeding programs a shelter would provide,” she said.
Clients of the Max Block Food Pantry are both folks with chronic food insecurity and those who have had a temporary run of bad luck. “Sometimes tragedy happens within a family. There is the loss of a breadwinner’s job, illness of a primary caregiver, or relocation due to family challenges,” Rodriguez said.
“Once we give them food and help them with financial assistance or link them to other resources, the family stabilizes and will never need our services again,” she said. But more frequently, the pantry serves families living paycheck to paycheck, she said, noting there are those who are thrown into crisis due to car repairs, reduced work hours, or care for a sick child. Many clients are also veterans with limited funds who are unable to secure work or seniors with fixed incomes.
The pantry often serves families and seniors who have had their food stamp benefit reduced, said Stephanie Majeskey, JFCS director of grants and compliance. “Some seniors we have served over the past few years only receive $16 per month. During hurricanes our pantry has played a critical role in providing nonperishable food to a community in crisis.
“Quite often we will see fluctuations in pantry usage – spikes – during the summer when kids are home from school, during August and September when families are juggling back-to-school expenses, or during the holidays when households struggle to provide meaningful and traditional meals for their families,” Majeskey said.
“Our food pantry is designed to be available to people three times per year, but in truth, we never turn people away with nothing,” Rodriguez said.
During the past 10 years, the Max Block Food Pantry has served 57,055 individuals, 20,020 households and 19,969 children, said Majeskey. In 2016, the pantry served 8,078 individuals, 2,629 households and 2,827 children and as of September 2017, 3,028 individuals, 975 households and 1,060 children were served, she said.
JFCS is renovating the pantry so clients have a hands-on shopping experience. “Currently we pack grocery bags and pass food through to our clients and they get very little input into the types of food they are receiving,” said Rodriguez. “In our new model, clients will be greeted by a volunteer and will be able to have the ‘shopping experience.’ They will get to pick what type of vegetables and proteins their family will enjoy.
“This is much more respectful to our participants and will give them a voice in what they want to serve their family,” she said, adding JFCS will also offer a children’s clothing closet alongside the pantry. “Over 80 percent of the people who visit our food pantry have children and very often need assistance with clothing appropriate to the season.”
Over the past 100 years in its many configurations, JFCS has often provided emergency food and monetary help as well as other services to many in the community. However, it was in 1987, when Rabbi Michael Matuson of The Temple shared his deep concern with Congregation Ahavath Chesed about hunger in Jacksonville, that the pantry came into its own through the birth of the Feed-A-Needy Neighbor (FANN) program, said Majeskey.
“Two congregants, Judi Greenhut and Sandy Miller, decided to do something to help. With the support of former JFCS Executive Director Iris T. Young, Greenhut and Miller started FANN, collecting food for the JFCS pantry,” she said.
Decades later, FANN is still generously supported by a concerned community as well as many local businesses so that each year the Max Block Food Pantry can distribute nutritious, nonperishable food to more than 8,000 individuals and families in Northeast Florida.
“The pantry serves as JFCS’ gateway to new donors and new opportunities,” Majeskey said. “FANN is a cherished program in the community. Once donors begin giving to FANN and learn about all we do, they often become connected to us on many different levels. Through FANN, we are connected to numerous schools, civic organizations, and large area businesses. Many of our board members and volunteers first hear about JFCS through FANN,” she said.
The pantry thrives due to the long-time support from the Block family, owners of Darifair Company, America’s first national dairy supplier. In early summer every year, the Block Family Foundation challenges other donors to give to the pantry, promising to match their collective contributions up to $10,000.
“The relationship between the Block family and Jewish Family & Community Services is really what we wish all donor relationships were like,” said Rodriguez. “They have a genuine desire to make sure that people in our community are not hungry. And we know, working with our clients, that if you are hungry, it’s impossible to focus on academics, professional growth and strengthening your family. You have to satisfy basic needs first. The Block family knows this and steps up every time we need them.”
Food drives are also initiated by local synagogues and Jewish community as well as children, who designate the pantry for their Bar and Bat Mitzvah projects, said Rodriguez.
The food pantry is always in need of food donations, especially peanut butter, cereal, pasta, and other items that can make a quality meal for a family, said Rodriguez. “Once our renovation is done, we will need volunteers on a consistent basis to greet clients and take them through the shopping experience.”