‘Valentines for Food’

A caring community rallies to help the Crisis Ministry fight hunger

By: Diane Landis Hackett
   Princeton is again being challenged to have a heart this Valentine’s Day by providing at least 6,000 bags of groceries — double last year’s amount — to feed hungry families in Mercer County.
   "How can people not give $3.99 for a bag of food with all those Valentine cards on the street?" says Don Dickason, the coordinator of the "Valentines for Food" drive, a community-wide effort to support The Crisis Ministry of Princeton and Trenton.
   John Staszak, manager of McCaffrey’s supermarket in Princeton, says the effort helps to keep people aware of the needs around them. "The drive was very successful last year in helping the people of the community. It’s a good event because people are often blind to the needs around us, and for this reason McCaffrey’s believes in helping others," he says.
   Once again, McCaffrey’s will be doubling the contributions of community participants. For every $3.99 "Valentine Bag of Food" purchased, McCaffrey’s will be donating $7.98 worth of foodstuff to the drive. Both of McCaffrey’s markets in the area — Princeton and West Windsor — are taking part in the effort.
   In its second year, the "Valentines for Food" drive is asking people to buy or donate a bag of groceries worth approximately the price of a valentine card ($3.99) to help those who may not be getting anything sweet on Feb. 14. All of Princeton’s public and private schools are taking part, as well as a number of other schools around the area, plus various community groups. The participating organizations are providing volunteer coordinators to publicize the event and to collect food at each location.
   Last year the drive raised 3,700 bags of food with a retail value of $14,600. The donations provided enough foodstuff to fill the shelves at The Crisis Ministry food bank for only half a month, however.
   "If we could do a month’s worth of food this year, I’d be flying," says Mr. Dickason. A $3.99 contribution can feed a family supported by The Crisis Ministry for two days.
   Last year, Mr. Dickason says the highlight of the drive was standing on the McCaffrey’s loading dock and watching the five pallets — or 11 tons of groceries — that the community had donated be placed onto the truck to be delivered to the food pantries.
   Marcia MacKillop, assistant manager of The Crisis Ministry, says the agency depends on food drives for much of the food they provide to those in need.
   "We are looking to get assistance from congregations and community groups to help us this year with our food needs. The cost of food has gone up. Gas is going up. People in need will often skimp on food if their gas is going to be turned off or they can’t pay rent," she says.
   Mr. Dickason, who retired in 1996 after 33 years as a college administrator, dreamed up the idea of the food drive last year because he wanted to reach out and involve children in activities that help others.
   The "Valentines for Food" drive meshes well with many of the Princeton public schools’ existing community service programs. These include a program where high school sophomores receive credit for doing service activities; the "Do Something" Club at John Witherspoon Middle School, an after-school program that focuses on special service activities, and the Littlebrook School’s service-learning program, where every grade in the elementary school designs and conducts service activities focusing on real needs, such as illiteracy, the environment, homelessness and hunger.
   "Our service-learning projects at Littlebrook engage children in identifying needs and making real contributions to the local and larger communities. We enhance our curriculum-based service learning by participating in community-wide efforts like the ‘Valentines for Food’ drive. Ultimately, our goal is to raise caring adults," says Annie Kosek, Littlebrook principal.
   For this year’s drive, Mr. Dickason has enlisted 15 schools, including the American Boychoir School, which will be bringing students by bus to McCaffrey’s to buy the food bags and then to The Crisis Ministry food pantry in Trenton to stock the shelves. The Hun School, The Lawrenceville School and an assortment of other private schools are also participating, along with the Millstone River School in Plainsboro and West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North.
   Community groups such as The Rotary Club of Princeton and the Rotaract Club of Princeton University are also taking part in the drive.
   One particularly interesting twist is that The Rotary Club will be hosting a luncheon Feb. 7 at 12:15 p.m. at Nassau Presbyterian Church to raise money for the drive where only the foods that are being collected for the drive will be served. The menu, which will be prepared by Martin Parker, a chef and a nutritionist, will include soups, beans of all kinds, rice and canned fish or meats.
   The Crisis Ministry serves 800 families in need in Princeton and Trenton with monthly bags of food and other assistance. Clients choose their food in a food pantry at each location.
   The Crisis Ministry also provides back rent for people facing eviction; security deposits for people who are homeless; utility assistance for people with shut-off notices, and prescription medications for people who have no other means of payment.
How to participate
   There are five ways to contribute food.
   1) Children, staff and administrators can bring food to their schools.
   2) Valentine bags of food can be purchased at McCaffrey’s Princeton and West Windsor for $3.99 at the check- out lines.
   3) Food can be dropped off at Nassau Presbyterian Church or Trinity Episcopal Church in Princeton.
   4) Student groups can go to McCaffrey’s and purchase food, then deliver it to Nassau Presbyterian Church.
   5) Checks payable to the Crisis Ministry of Princeton and Trenton can be dropped off at the churches and schools or mailed to The Crisis Ministry at 123 E. Hanover Street, Trenton 08608. Make a note on the check, "Valentines for Food Drive."
The Crisis Ministry of Princeton and Trenton, a nonprofit tax-exempt charitable agency, can be reached by calling (609) 921-2135 (Princeton) and (609) 396-9355 (Trenton).