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Jersey Shore community gives thanks even after Sandy

By Julie Hays, CNN
November 19, 2012 -- Updated 1440 GMT (2240 HKT)
A drive benefiting Island Harvest food bank, a Feeding America partner in Sandy recovery, collected more than 2,000 turkeys.
A drive benefiting Island Harvest food bank, a Feeding America partner in Sandy recovery, collected more than 2,000 turkeys.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Communities in New York and New Jersey prepare for Thanksgiving amid devastation
  • The executive director of a food bank in New Jersey says it's a symbolic holiday
  • Feeding America member food banks in storm-affected areas have seen a spike in need
  • Feeding America is committed to long-term support for storm victims

(CNN) -- The cranberry sauce may be canned and the gravy is not grandma's recipe, but a food bank in New Jersey is determined to give storm-ravaged residents a meal to celebrate this Thanksgiving.

"It's an important and symbolic holiday for us here in America. It's something so basic to put food on the table," says Carlos Rodriguez, the executive director of the FoodBank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties in New Jersey.

It's a symbolic gesture of hope in the midst of great devastation.

Before Superstorm Sandy, the FoodBank was already serving about 127,000 people in the two counties, or 1 in 10 residents.

Then came the storm.

"The entire landscape literally changed at the Jersey Shore," Rodriguez says. It also changed the landscape of who needed FoodBank's help.

"We deal with the families that are displaced and the growing number of families that are in need that probably a few weeks ago would never imagine themselves in need of the services of a pantry or a soup kitchen," Rodriguez says. "We have many folks who used to help with food drives and turkey drives this year who now find themselves on the other side of the table."

In the two weeks after the storm, FoodBank gave out twice what it had during the same time period the year before. It has been maxing out resources and manpower to help residents already stretched thin by the recession restock pantries in storm-battered homes.

As a member of Feeding America, FoodBank has received help from national network of 201 banks that work with 61,000 agencies to provide food to needy members of communities across the country.

Feeding America has been helping storm victims before Sandy made landfall, readying emergency food, water and supplies in areas that were likely to be impacted.

"We were moving food out up until the rain started coming in to families in need, and we'll continue doing that for as long as we're needed," says Maura Daly, Feeding America's chief communication and development officer.

The organization has six member food banks in the New York and New Jersey area. All have seen a significant increase the demand for food assistance since Sandy hit, and Daly expects that to continue well into 2013.

"What people don't remember is that when hurricanes fade from the headlines, millions of people are still repairing and rebuilding their lives -- which takes months and months and months. We're anticipating that this will be at least a six- to nine-month recovery in the hardest hit areas," Daly says.

Based on recent food distribution, Daly roughly estimates that member food banks in storm-affected areas could see an 80% increase in need in November and December, and that need may remain as high as 50% for the first quarter of 2013.

The storm, which made landfall at the end of October, was problematic for the low-income clients the Feeding America network serves -- as much because of its timing as its severity.

Many families that rely on food stamps had already expended their monthly allotment before Sandy and did not have the resources to stock up on emergency supplies before the storm, according to Daly.

Then, after the storm, many schools remained closed for a week or more, so vulnerable students did not have access to free and reduced-cost school meal programs on which many families rely.

Some workplaces remain closed after the storm and others have limited hours of operation, so many low-wage workers have become underemployed.

"They don't have the means to buy the amount of food that they need for their family on a lesser income, which means they're standing in our food banks coming in looking for emergency family boxes. And so that's still going in very frequently in the impacted areas," Daly says.

Feeding America member food banks normally see an increase in need as winter approaches, because their clients are struggling with seasonal expenses like heating bills. Ahead of this holiday season, the organization is working overtime to meet demands compounded by the storm.

"Thanksgiving is America's holiday, so we want everyone to be able to celebrate as much as possible and even though a hurricane has come through there's a lot to be thankful," Daly says. "That's a role that Feeding America takes very seriously all around our value of providing hope for people. So it's critical that we do that even more so during the week of thanksgiving."

To support Feeding America's storm recovery efforts, call 1-800-910-5524 or visit FeedingAmerica.org. For more ways to help all those affected by Superstorm Sandy visit Impact Your World.

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