Click through photo gallery to see the volunteers at work.


 

Shortly after 3 on Tuesday afternoon, the parking lot at Cherry Hill's Joyce Kilmer Elementary School began to fill with cars. Soon the cars were backed up the driveway and spilled onto Chapel Avenue. The lot was bumper to bumper with idling vehicles, many of them SUVs with their tailgates popped open.

Each week, for more than a year, that ritual has been repeated: South Jersey residents show up for their weekly allocation of 14 free kosher children's meals, courtesy of the federal government, which wanted to ensure all children would be fed as the nation dealt with the spread of COVID-19.

"This program is working," Yonaton Yares, a Cherry Hill native who discovered the food availability online and brought the program to South Jersey, told 70and73.com in an interview. "It totally is helping people."

That help — in the form of gallons of regular and chocolate milk, meats, tuna, mangos, grapes, apple and pineapple juice, canned vegetables and even cinnamon buns — will end this coming Tuesday as Yares and his team of volunteers unload and break down pallets delivered in box trucks for what is likely the last time. The 14 meals per child go from the pallets to the waiting vehicles. 

While Yares' Feed All the Children program, aimed in part at home-schooled students and those in private schools, has operated in Cherry Hill since June 2020 and given out more than 1.3 million meals, there is no indication the federal government is considering keeping it alive.

In response to a 70and73.com inquiry, the USDA issued a statement, saying the agency "provided a broad range of flexibilities" to get meals to children during the pandemic. Meals will continue to be provided through public schools and private ones that have signed up for the National School Lunch Program, according to the USDA.

"The school meals programs were never intended, nor are they authorized by Congress, to serve children who do not attend school," Kara Motosicky, acting public affairs director in the USDA's Mid-Atlantic office in Robbinsville, said in an email. "Further, the program cannot serve children who attend schools that choose not participate in the program."

When asked about the elimination, U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross' office this week researched the project in Cherry Hill, which is in his Congressional district.

Norcross' office issued the following statement on Thursday evening: "Throughout this pandemic, far too many families have struggled to put food on the table as we experienced devastating impacts on employment and the economy," Norcross said. "No one should have to worry about whether they can afford to feed their families, and in Congress we have worked to ensure food security. Food security programs have provided a lifeline for millions of families, and I will continue to support these programs."

Although the food is kosher, the distribution is not limited to the Jewish community or to children in families that show financial need. Like the USDA's school meal program, it was opened to anyone who ordered the meals and showed up. 

Volunteers on Tuesday were working in a steady drizzle, almost running from truck to stacked food boxes to the waiting cars.

Kristi Badran put her back into pulling the handle of a pallet loader with a skid piled five-high with food boxes. She switched to a two-wheel hand truck to move the individual boxes under tents, where other volunteers distributed the food.

Badran, a Cherry Hill resident who is president of the Kilmer PTA, had a quick response when asked about her motivation to struggle with the heavy boxes, as she has since last November. "Being able to see how many people we're able to feed," Badran told 70and73.com.

Although the food is prepared under Jewish kosher standards, that isn't the reason Badran accepts meals for her daughters, ages 7 and 13. Badran is quick to point out that her family is Roman Catholic and that she was attracted to the food for its quality, which volunteers said had more appeal than the USDA meals distributed by public schools. She said the meals cut her family's weekly food budget in half.

"It's a great group of people," Badran said of the volunteers. "We are a well-oiled machine."

And the drive shaft of the machine is Yares, 33, who is a blur as he leaps into the delivery trucks to unload pallets to keep the food flowing.

Yares said he was troubled by the program ending. "There's been a major doughnut hole that's been formed," he said. "Kids are going to go hungry without the expansion."

Yares' group, Feed All the Children, is lobbying for funding to continue and is sponsoring a petition on the group's website.

The program coordinator said families have come from as far north as Trenton and as far south as Glassboro. Through rain, snow and the summer's heat the volunteers have handed out the meals.

Distribution started out at the Young Israel of Cherry Hill synagogue on Cooper Landing road and moved to Kilmer last September. Yares credited Cherry Hill public schools as a great partner in providing the staging area in the parking lot.

Yares is a product of the Cherry Hill school system — Joseph D. Sharpe Elementary, Rosa International Middle School and Cherry Hill High School East, graduating in 2006. The Rutgers University graduate now is a doctoral student in higher education at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Yares, who goes by Yoni, and his wife, Ilana Yares, who's also active in the program, have five children from 18 months to 9 years old and live on the west side of Cherry Hill.

Yares explained his Cherry Hill operation is a branch of the program offered by Bnos Devorah School in Lakewood and that the children's meals are prepared by the Out to Lunch (OTL) kosher cafe, which also is in Lakewood.

The program's group of volunteers working in the rain on Tuesday seemed to know their roles well and worked at a frenetic pace. Some worked alongside their children and some of those children were building the community service hours required by their schools.

Cherry Hill resident India Lark worked with her 9-year-old daughter Samantha moving gallons of milk and food into waiting cars.

Lark said she was volunteering for the program "because it's not about us. What can I do to make the world better today?"

She said she was inspired to volunteer when she heard about Yares. "It's very rare that one person can spearhead such an amazing project," she told 70and73.com.

And Lark said teaching her daughter responsibility to the community was at the heart of volunteering.

"I teach my daughter Samantha to be responsible by teaching her the value of responsibility because we all have a role to play in fighting hunger, whether old or young," she said. "I'm also teaching Samantha the benefit of sacrifice. Because selflessness is such a wonderful trait in this self-centered world we live in today."