ESSEX COUNTY — Want to donate more fresh food to your local pantry? Talk to Livingston resident Chris Bickel — he is working on an app for that.
An active volunteer with local pantries and the first townwide Food Day coming up on Wednesday, Bickel is raising funds to build a mobile app that’s a new twist on old-fashioned giving to food banks.
His app idea, which has gained traction with local pantries, basically creates a "virtual refrigerator" on your smart phone or tablet. The app makes it possible to donate money for healthful foods or actually select the foods — tomatoes, green beans, a dozen eggs.
"The fresh stuff is really what’s going to make people feel better," he said.
Eileen Sweeny, coordinator of Pantry Partners for United Way of Northern New Jersey, has been in talks with Bickel about developing the app and believes it will increase healthier options in pantries beyond Livingston.
If the donor gives money, the donation will be sent directly to the designated pantry or soup kitchen for purchasing fresh food. If the donor purchases, say, two bags of apples or three heads of lettuce, it will be delivered directly to the designated charity by participating stores. Several grocers already have expressed interest, Bickel said.
"I think it has enormous potential," said Sweeny, noting that three years ago United Way began its own push for more items like whole wheat pasta or low-sodium canned vegetables. "It could change what’s in food pantries and soup kitchens across the country."
The app will also feature a dashboard that shows in real time what a charity’s greatest needs are using charts and graphs. Bickel said he needs to raise a few thousand dollars to get the app professionally developed.
Bickel knows what it’s like to go hungry. Growing up in Ventnor, he was the second youngest of eight children in a household where food stamps put meals on the table. At 16, he was homeless for about eight months and was helped by an English teacher and his rowing coach.
Now the supervisor of social studies for Livingston Public Schools, Bickel, 43, serves as the district’s liaison to the township’s Food Day Committee — which has organized events throughout the month to celebrate healthful food and raise hunger awareness — and has become one of its biggest advocates. On Oct. 14, volunteers including Bickel and the Community Hunger Outreach Warehouse filled a school bus full of donated goods for a series of "Stuff The Bus" events around Essex County.
Many times, hunger is a silent problem in suburbia. "Sue," a 48-year-old Livingston resident, is one example. As a working single mom of three, she struggles to make ends meet and receives food from St. Philomena’s pantry. She did not want to give her name.
The economy hit her family hard when her husband, whom she is separated from, had his salary cut in half. That, in turn, slashed the child support she receives.
"My kids are happy with a box of pasta," she said, but as a mother she wants to give them more. "Food is definitely an expense, and I’m trying to make sure they get chicken and all the stuff that they should be getting."
"The money they do have they’re using on taxes or their mortgage, and (residents) scrimp on food," said Sister Barbara Howard of St. Philomena’s, which has partnered with Bickel.
And it’s not easy to rely on food pantries in a well-to-do town like Livingston.
"We live in a town where people have two, three homes or vacation in Mexico every break or get a car on their 17th birthday," the single mom said.
To contact Bickel or support his effort to create an app, send an e-mail message to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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