Every Passover, Jewish families clear out their pantries, removing foods that are not in keeping with the traditions of the eight-day holiday.
This year, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey has given them someplace to send those items.
With Passover beginning the evening of April 6, the federation is staging a food drive to benefit the hungry across North Jersey. It will culminate next Sunday when the food will be sorted at the federation's Paramus headquarters.
"We were very much aware that hunger is a major issue in our community," noted Alice Blass, a project coordinator at the Paramus-based federation.
So the organization is collecting canned goods and other unopened, non-perishable items to distribute to six food pantries serving North Jersey. The recipients will range from the Center for Food Action, Bergen County's largest pantry network, and CUMAC, the largest pantry in Passaic County, to smaller operations like the Wayne Interfaith Network pantry.
"We have just under 40 collection sites signed up so far, including synagogues, day schools and Jewish community centers," Blass said. Most of the sites began accepting donations in the last couple of weeks and will continue to take them up until Sunday.
"Since this is the first time we've done this, we don't know how much food to expect will come in. But we'd love to have more than the pantries can store," Blass said.
The food will be distributed Sunday as part International Good Deeds Day, an event started by two Israeli charitable organizations in 2007 — Ruach Tova and the Ted Arison Family Foundation. Arison, who died in 1999, was the founder of Carnival Cruise Lines.
About 7,000 Israeli volunteers participated in the first Good Deeds Day. By last year it had grown into an international event with 160,000 people taking part in various charitable and community activities.
taking part in the food drive. On Sunday, volunteers will bring the food to the federation headquarters and spend the day sorting and delivering it to some of the pantries. The large food pantries like CFA and CUMAC will have trucks there to take the donations back to their warehouses.
While the effort is being coordinated by the federation, officials emphasize people don't have to be Jewish to participate. Anyone is welcome to donate food or volunteer at the federation headquarters on Sunday.
And officials at the pantries say the drive couldn't come at a better time.
"We had the busiest January in our history," said the Rev. Patricia Bruger, executive director of CUMAC. ThePaterson-based pantry saw no let up last month either. "We distributed 211,000 pounds of food in February," she said.
CFA continues to see record levels of clients as well.
"This past December to February we had 21 percent more people come for help than last December to February," said Patricia Espy, CFA's executive director. "We're anxiously awaiting the food from this drive. We're starting to see some gaps in our supplies."
Despite the recent data showing that the economy has started creating jobs, the people who use the pantries' services aren't seeing the benefits of any economic turnaround yet, pantry officials said.
"Food pantries see people who are affected by economic disaster before everybody else is, and they're the people who recover last," Bruger explained. "We're helping people who have been unemployed for a long time. Most of the people we see, even when they get a job it tends to be part-time and low wage."
Pantry and federation officials aren't worried that staging a major food drive in the spring will detract from donations at other drives later in the year.
"A lot of synagogues and other organizations run food drives throughout the year anyway," noted the federation spokeswoman Miriam Allenson. "It's not like asking people to give money. They realize people need food year-round."
Blass said the federation is urging volunteers to show up on Sunday at its headquarters on Eisenhower Avenue inParamus, although she's asking people to register ahead online.
"It would be doubly great if they bring more food with them," Blass said. "It will also be a good teaching opportunity for families. And if you bring your kids, we're also going to have some fun, hands-on activities for children."