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NJEA members provide social safety net in South Jersey

By Adam Sheridan, Winslow Twp. Education Association

Working in a public school, I see the effects of hunger and food insecurity every day. Teachers across the state trade stories of buying lunch for hungry students, and my experience is no different. The COVID-19 crisis, though, threatens to unleash an onslaught of hunger for which our nation is grossly under-prepared. 

Anticipating this, some of my colleagues and I decided to do something about it. Working with progressive community allies and civic groups like Cooper River Indivisible and the South Jersey Progressive Democrats, we created the South Jersey Mutual Aid Network. It began as a Google Form that we shared on social media, asking for volunteers to deliver food from food pantries to the doorsteps of people too sick to go themselves. It grew quickly from there, as families in need began filling out the form themselves. 

Their stories were frequently heartbreaking.There was the single mom with ALS trying to home school her kids while schools were closed. The family with both parents just laid off from their jobs who didn’t know how they’d put food on the table. The woman who lived alone and suffered from a lung disease who was terrified to leave her home. Their stories and their struggles piled up and piled up as more and more people used the form to ask for help.  

A few weeks ago, we were teaching children how to read and write and solve equations, and now we find ourselves running a decentralized logistics network. Dan Cummings from the Edison Education Association headed up the Ocean/Monmouth County branch of the Mutual Aid Network. He’s worked with partners to deliver more than 100 Crisis Relief boxes in one week to families struggling with food insecurity.

Melissa Tomlinson from Buena Regional Education Association took on the responsibility for Atlantic County, especially the great outpouring of need in Atlantic City and the surrounding area.

I took Camden and Burlington County, and along with NJEA members like Jenn Zingaro from Berlin Borough Education Association, we’ve helped more than 105 families, comprising more than 250 people, to find food.

When the food pantry system has proven inadequate to the task, we’ve gathered food and donations from friends and neighbors, packed them into boxes, and delivered them ourselves right to doorsteps. 

The need has been so great and the outpouring of volunteerism so strong that we’ve recently piloted a Town Captain program, where we’ve empowered leaders in Camden County communities with the tools to organize themselves and their neighbors to fight against hunger.

We’ve also created a shareable Google Form where people can identify their needs beyond just food, and volunteers can self-elect to help out, everything from help with telehealth technology to pet food to assistance paying bills. 

We are filling the gaps in our nation’s frayed social safety net, a system that was insufficient in the best of times and is now being revealed as completely inadequate in a crisis.

And everywhere you find a mutual aid effort in South Jersey, you’ll find an NJEA member behind it, working in solidarity to protect the vulnerable of our society.

Our students and our communities need us now more than ever. 

Adam Sheridan is a teacher at Winslow Twp. Middle School in Winslow, NJ.