Somewhere in Ohio, the truck with all the food broke down, so the Rotary club volunteers gathered in the athletic centre at Drew University (Madison, US) had to go to Plan B, which was made up on the fly.
Plan A was the third annual Madison Rotary End Hunger 3.6 Project, a community meal-packaging event.
The Rotary chose the name “3.6” because “every 3.6 seconds someone in the world dies from being malnourished,” said Ellsworth Havens of the Madison Rotary (New Jersey, US — D 7470).
The best way to describe the event is in Swiss-watch terms.
A mobilised army of civic-minded volunteers works with assembly-line precision to package thousands of meals, using food purchased through personal donations and corporate sponsorships.
There is a logistical ballet of trucks coming and going to get the meals distributed to places of need throughout North and Central Jersey.
It’s all done in two shifts over an eight-hour stretch, while the clock is ticking.
The goal this year was to get 210,000 meals packaged and out the door in one workday.
So, two Saturdays ago, the Madison Rotary Club — with one eye on the weather and the other on the goal — was ready.
The hardwood floors at the Simon Forum at Drew were covered end to end with thick blue plastic, so the foot traffic from the nearly one thousand expected volunteers wouldn’t scuff the surface too badly.
One hundred yards of tables were set up, with scales and funnels to measure the ingredients of the dry meals to be distributed to area food banks, shelters and schools.
Everything was “a go” for the marathon event.
Then came word that the truck bringing the food was stuck in Ohio.
Tonnes of vitamin-enriched meals of macaroni and cheese, rice and beans, and oatmeal, and other dry, nonperishable staples were stacked in the trailer, held hostage to the mechanical failure of the tractor.
In came Plan B. Calls had to be made; arrangements undone. All the work that had gone into the planning had to be scrambled.
To carry forth that metaphor, what do you do when an egg yolk breaks? You look on the sunny side and make scrambled eggs.
So, while the Saturday volunteers were sent home and the food distribution trucks left empty, there was still Sunday.
“In the end, we ended up packaging 158,112 meals, which isn’t bad, considering,” said Carmela Moeller of the Madison Rotary.
“We were a little light on volunteers Sunday morning, but we put out an emergency call to other clubs and churches, and by the afternoon (packaging shift) we had 500 volunteers.”
The motivation factor
Resilience is something all civic groups must have to survive and continue fulfilling their missions.
We’ve heard it all before: Aging population. Declining interest.
Social media. Self-centered millennials.
But before we bury the Elks, Moose, Lions, Freemasons and Odd Fellows, consider the words of Jen Pinto, of Florham Park, who joined the Madison Rotary last year after participating in the End Hunger 3.6 Project.
“I saw how powerful the event was,” said Pinto, 38.
“I was overwhelmed by their generosity and how welcoming they were.”
“I wanted to get connected to the community,” she said.
“I wanted to have a sense of being grounded, being part of something, instead of being detached.”
Another new member of the Madison Rotary, Beat Barblan, 55, shared that view.
“After the election, I thought I had to do something,” he said.
“I thought the election brought to light our differences, our lack of community. I think more and more people are looking to get involved, do something that is helpful, and connect with their community.”
Carla Matrisciano, 56, also was seeking a greater connection to the community.
“With the kids out of the house, it gave me more time to participate in the community,” she said.
“I have time to give now, to give back, and do little things that can make a difference.”
For many, the in-town connections they make revolve around their children and the schools.
When the kids go, the parents may flounder or flourish when it comes to staying connected.
In high-tax, cold-weather states like New Jersey, many people head south when the kids fly the coop.
But others remain ingrained in their towns and, like, Matrisciano said, can dig in deeper.
“We bring people together,” said Jeannie Tsukamato of the Madison Rotary.
“For this event we had church groups, Scout groups and other civic groups all coming together.”
That web of group interaction fits the model Tsukamoto calls “involvement creating more involvement.
“When we have that kind of involvement, we can create strong advocacy in solving societal problems,” she said.
For the Madison Rotary, which sponsored the event with 22 other Rotary Clubs from the region, the societal problem is hunger.
“In a state of 8 million,” Havens said, “1.5 million people are ‘food insecure’ and the average person has no idea.”
Havens said even the most affluent communities have people without enough food, especially the elderly, who try to meet rising property taxes on fixed incomes.
“Some of the government social infrastructure is being underfunded and torn down — and that’s scary as hell,” he said.
The meals the Rotary packaged predictably went to the Salvation Army, the St John’s Soup Kitchen in Newark, and the MEND interfaith network of 17 food pantries in urban Essex County, but others were distributed to agencies serving people in towns such as Summit, Madison and Chatham.
“This is what keeps us (the Rotary) relevant,” Ellsworth said.
“There’s not a town in the six counties where this food is distributed that doesn’t have need.”