For the past 29 years, Family Promise of Bergen County has provided free dinners to shelter residents and anyone in need of a meal at the Housing, Health and Human Services Center in Hackensack as part of our nightly Walk-In Dinner Program. But when COVID-19 struck the area this past March and shelter residents were slowly evacuated and placed in local motels, the future of the program came into question—as well as how we would fulfill our commitment to those facing hunger in our community.

This signature program has long relied upon a cache of congregations, businesses, civic organizations, and schools committing to provide, prepare, and serve a nutritious meal to our guests every night. But while many organizations continued to donate food as the threat of COVID-19 became evident in Bergen County and Governor Murphy issued a stay-at-home order for the state, many of those who would normally serve guests were unable to volunteer.

Despite the county continuing to offer emergency housing for homeless individuals by arranging for their motel stays, providing food was deemed to be too challenging, and those who were relocated were going to have to fend for themselves. Seeing the Walk-In Dinner as a promise to the residents and walk-up guests alike that needed to be fulfilled, Board President Paul Shackford and Executive Director Kate Duggan began to deliver pre-packaged meals to motels. What started as just one stop at one nearby motel quickly grew to three, then four, different locations and it became clear that they could not do it all themselves.

With the shelter’s residents now living in motels scattered throughout southern Bergen County, and even more people being faced with food insecurity as a result of furloughs and closures stemming from COVID-19, the need for volunteers was greater than ever before. After addressing the problem with the Board of Trustees, board members began to come forward to offer help at the Walk-In Dinner, and through word of mouth the call for volunteers circulated.

Despite the threat of COVID-19 still looming, people began to “mask up” to get the job done. What started as a few core board members and longtime volunteers grew to include new faces, such as college students home from school because of closures and people recently laid off who saw this as an opportunity to help their community. Every afternoon they’d come to Hackensack and quickly get to work preparing to-go containers, packing bags full of food, and distributing meals either by delivering them to the motels or handing them out on the loading dock.

Volunteers dedicated to caring for fellow members of their community have always been the life of Family Promise, and we are overwhelmed by and grateful for the response we’ve received from those wanting to help. Three months since the pandemic forced us to think outside of the box and pivot to new methods in order to feed people, our Walk-In Dinner Program is just as strong as ever. On average, we prepare 100 meals a day to be delivered to individuals who continue to reside in the motels, and give out an additional 50 to walk-ups at the shelter.

We are currently looking for additional volunteers to help with this program. Volunteers must be 18 or older and, because of our concern for your safety, not be in a high risk category. Please reach out to our Director of Volunteers, Margo Heller mheller@bergenfamilypromise.org for additional information.