The challenge of stocking CJFS’ food closet

Recently, Birmingham’s Collat Jewish Family Services doubled the size of its food closet, which served 139 families last year. The challenge now is to keep it stocked — and stocked properly.

Local congregations do High Holiday drives, where bags are distributed on Rosh Hashanah, filled and returned on Yom Kippur. After that, the food closet is well stocked for a while. The rest of the year, it’s more of a struggle.

At the beginning of the summer, the Levite Jewish Community Center’s Day Camp held a quick collection drive for the food closet. The time immediately after Passover, there is a lot of activity as community members get rid of unused Passover food. By mid-summer, there was still a good supply of matzah on hand.

Executive Director Lauren Perlman said while everything is appreciated, donors should imagine that they were hungry and “what would they need” when considering what items to donate. She said items like tuna fish, canned salmon, peanut butter and jelly, pasta, rice and beans are examples of “things that can really go a long way.”

Development Director Alison Berman added, “we appreciate it all, but this is what we really need.”

The food closet is part of the CJFS’ assistance for those struggling financially, as part of an overall package of services. Open to anyone in need in the Birmingham area, the closet distributes about 100 bags of food a month. “A lot of these people come to us regularly,” Berman noted, and there are parameters for using the closet in an effort to be “good stewards” of donated resources.

For a family that is struggling, high summer power bills can push food down the spending list. Perlman said such families are “able to pay the utility bill because they’re not spending that $30 at the grocery store.”

The closet does not contain any perishables, but some donors provide gift cards to local grocery stores so clients can go purchase such items.

Perlman said some donors double up the mitzvah by purchasing the gift cards at Temple Beth-El or Temple Emanu-El. The congregations receive 3 to 5 percent of the purchase price on those cards as a fundraiser.

The food closet is completely volunteer run, with volunteers coming in to organize the shelves, get rid of out-of-date items or items with little nutritional value.

In addition to volunteering in the closet, individuals can make an extra effort to help keep the shelves stocked. Many donors get a few extra items each shopping trip, or make it a learning game when shopping with children. The “penny item” at Publix each Wednesday is also a popular donation.

Businesses can “pick a week” and do a drive, even suggesting five items to choose from. Or have a company picnic where admission is a jar of peanut butter. Rival schools can compete in a collection drive.