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Often referred to as “the little miracle that happens every day”, March 1, 2021 marked 30 consecutive years of that miracle in action! Even a pandemic did not stop the Walk-in Dinner Program from providing 150 meals or more seven days a week to our homeless and hungry neighbors. This was made possible by the dedication and commitment of both new and longtime food providers and volunteers.

This program was first developed and planned in 1991 at an IRF (now Family Promise) Board meeting in Hackensack, in recognition of – and response to – a growing and urgent need in the community. It began the very next day in the offices of the Community Action Program on Banta Place where people were literally tapping on windows asking for food. Meals were served on desks, radiators, and anywhere trays of food could be placed for the guests. The location was soon moved to Kansas Street which still only accommodated 38 people at a time and offered no cover from the elements for those waiting in line for a meal. After some struggle within the community and its leaders, another move was made to a site on Orchard Street, and later to Christ Episcopal Church, both in Hackensack. Finally, at the County’s request, the Walk-in Dinner began serving meals from the newly built Housing, Health and Human Services Center on October 9, 2010 and has had a home there ever since.

This brief and summarized history of the Walk-in Dinner was told to me by Family Promise founder Nancy Woods, who was passionate about this vital program. The first meal was provided by co-founder of the Walk-in, and dear friend, Bob Armbruster on March 1, 1991. His church, St John’s in Bergenfield, remains active to this day. Until his death a few years ago, Bob was deeply committed to the program, working as the primary coordinator of all participating churches, synagogues, and organizations. No one could say no to Bob! He recruited more and more groups through the years to join the effort which, over time, has included congregations of all faiths, civic organizations, schools, youth groups, and businesses. Approximately 125 different groups provide the meals each year. We credit Bob’s singular focus for the growth of the dinner program and making it into what it is today.

Before the pandemic struck last March, participating groups would purchase, prepare, and also serve nutritious, hot meals to residents of the shelter and anyone in the community in need of a free meal. That all changed in April when the shelter closed and moved all residents into local motels. People still needed what is, in many cases, their only meal of the day. But how to meet that responsibility? Thanks to Family Promise Board President Paul Shackford, who put systems in place to pack, deliver, and distribute meals, we were able to pivot quickly to meet the challenges. And volunteers came to the rescue, as always, ready to do whatever was required, willing to be of service to those in need, all while COVID-19 numbers were soaring in Bergen County. Masked and socially distanced they continue to show up each and every day.

In 2020 alone we provided 47,000 meals. In 30 years we have served approximately 1.2 million. On the occasion of the 25th anniversary, Executive Director Kate Duggan said: “Through Family Promise, our community is working together to make sure our most vulnerable neighbors, those who are hungry or homeless, have something to eat at the end of each day. Although our focus is working families who become homeless, Family Promise has important historical roots in the WIDP and it is an integral part of our identity as an organization.”

This remains true today, as we have seen the community work together this year in ways we could not have imagined, all while facing a global health crisis and personal vulnerabilities. With food insecurity on the rise for both individuals and families, the Walk-in Dinner is perhaps more important than ever. We are in awe of this level of commitment and compassion and offer gratitude from the entire Family Promise family to all those who have played a part in making this program so successful. We remember those who came before, we honor the legacy of Nancy Woods and Bob Armbruster, and we honor you, our friends and supporters, as we celebrate this milestone anniversary!

Congratulations to all!

Margo Heller