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South Jersey food bank and its singing ‘ambassador’ fight hunger spawned by COVID-19

Distribution of emergency food in South Jersey has rocketed from 16 million pounds in 2019 to nearly 21 million pounds so far this year because of the ravages of the coronavirus.

CC Miles of Medford Lakes is a singer-songwriter who was named an "ambassador" for the Food Bank of South Jersey. She sings and talks about hunger.
CC Miles of Medford Lakes is a singer-songwriter who was named an "ambassador" for the Food Bank of South Jersey. She sings and talks about hunger.Read moreCC Miles

As the daughter of a tech executive, CC Miles can’t tell you firsthand what it’s like to grow up hungry.

But as a singer-songwriter with a poetic soul and an artist’s talent to empathize, Miles, 19, of Medford Lakes, has decided to try.

Bearing the uncommon title of “Youth Ambassador 2020 for the Food Bank of South Jersey,” Miles has volunteered for six years for the food-distribution agency that serves Camden, Gloucester, Burlington, and Salem Counties. After packaging food in the Food Bank’s Pennsauken warehouse and talking to dozens of clients, she knows that the economic wreckage wrought by COVID-19 has only increased need.

Food Bank distribution has rocketed from 16 million pounds in 2019 to nearly 21 million pounds and climbing so far this year because of the ravages of the coronavirus, agency officials say. Similarly, the agency has distributed 800,000 more meals to children (including school lunches) this year than last.

“I’m simply trying to be a good citizen,” said Miles, who graduated from Shawnee High School in Medford, and is pursuing her music career full time. Her social conscience was developed at least in part by her father, Chris, who runs Miles Technologies, a Lumberton, Burlington County, IT company. He’s spent years doing charitable work for individuals living with disabilities, she said.

“I can’t believe how many people around me struggle with food insecurity,” she said, referencing the federal government term that describes the lack of money to pay for enough food to sustain a healthy life.

There are 60,000 food-insecure residents of Camden County, 17,000 of them children, Food Bank figures show; nearly 42,000 in Burlington County (close to 11,000 children); and almost 27,000 in Gloucester County (about 8,200 children).

Feeding America, the national food charity of which the Food Bank of South Jersey is a part, estimates that by the end of the year, the pandemic will have increased food insecurity in each of those counties by about five percentage points since 2018 (the latest available figures): up from 7.5% to 12.3% in Burlington County; 7.8% to 12.6% in Gloucester County; and 10.3% to 15.3% in Camden County.

» READ MORE: Hunger expected to explode here, throughout America, because of COVID-19

Aware of those head-spinning numbers, Miles said, “I’ve written a song about it all.” It’s already familiar to fans of her three albums and her followers on YouTube. Even as a teenager, Miles, whose look reminds people of Taylor Swift, understands that “music is a powerful form of information.”

In her song, “Mama, Please Don’t Worry,” Miles imagines a hungry household and its attendant anxieties:

... the week goes by and it’s that time mama can’t afford to feed me/

And I can hear her cry at night but I just pretend I’m sleeping/

She’s a hard worker but sometimes it ain’t enough/

I tell her it don’t matter even when it does.

‘Pretty bad out here’

That fraught parent-child dynamic in the face of food insecurity is all too familiar to Asia Lewis, 39, an unemployed secretary and mother of five in Stratford, Camden County.

“It’s pretty bad out here,” she said. “We were robbing Peter to pay Paul just to stay afloat before. Then COVID happened.”

Lewis left her job to supervise the virtual education of her children after their day-care center closed because of the pandemic. “I’m teacher, lunch aide, babysitter, cook,” she said. While her husband still works as an assistant food director at a rehabilitation center in Voorhees, Lewis said, her decision to quit her job punched a 25% hole in the family budget. “The bills exceed household money.”

The family has turned to the Cherry Hill food pantry, which is supplied by the Food Bank, to stay alive, she said.

Janet Giordano, executive director of the pantry, said she serves dozens of clients like Lewis. Need is up 50% over the same time last year.

“They come from as far away as Chesterfield,” almost 30 miles north, Giordano said. Many of those helped by the pantry live in higher-income communities such as Haddonfield, Marlton, and Mount Laurel.

» READ MORE: At holiday time, donations to many food charities aren’t keeping up with pandemic-fueled need

“Even my own relatives in Philadelphia ask, ‘Why does a place like Cherry Hill, with well-off people, need a pantry?’” Giordano said. “Oh, just cut me a break.

“So many people are becoming really desperate.”

That’s a fairly accurate assessment of how life is for Sheila Long, 60, of Blackwood, Camden County.

A registered nurse who until recently was making $60,000 year, Long said she had to step away from her job because her severe asthma is a dangerous underlying condition in the time of COVID-19. The hard choice has plunged her family into rough waters.

“I want to work, but I can’t take the risk,” said Long, who has four children, two of whom live with her. Her 21-year-old son has attention deficit disorder and Asperger syndrome. Her 19-year-old daughter is unemployed.

The house Long is renting is about to be auctioned off, her savings are gone, and she’s unsure of what happens next. All she knows for certain is that the Food Bank’s offerings supplied by the Cherry Hill pantry “are keeping us alive.”

She added, “There are snowball effects when you have problems. Everything just keeps building.”

Still, Long said, she’s grateful for the food she’s been receiving — enough, she said, to last through Christmas and beyond. “It’s just amazing,” Long said. “The people who help us never make us feel like we’re poor. It’s more like we’re all in this together.”

New to food banks

Jennifer Schaeffer, director of programs and services at the Food Bank, said she’s been working with many clients who, like Long, had never received charitable food before.

“We’ll get calls asking, ‘How do I begin to get food? Where do I go?’” Schaeffer said. “It’s difficult because the need is endlessly growing.

“It kills me. It’s all so unprecedented. How are children doing in these homes where parents haven’t worked in months, and the family is afraid of being evicted?

“I can tell you it’s hard for them to sleep at night.”

CC Miles said that since she’s steeped herself in the work of the Food Bank, she’s become very much aware of that hidden chaos in South Jersey homes.

“It’s shocking, it really is,” said Miles. “You just don’t realize how many people around you are going through this.”