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  • Writer's pictureAhmad Austin

Hammonton food drive helps South Jersey migrant workers

(Originally published in The Press of Atlantic City on 7/31/2020)

Rafael Mendez’s truck was the first to arrive at the Atlantic Blueberry Company on Friday to pick up food.

Volunteers from the Community FoodBank of New Jersey loaded it with a pallet of canned goods, produce, beans and masks for Mendez and other employees at Hammonton’s Pleasantdale Farm.

The 25 migrant farm workers of Pleasantdale were the first of more than 650 to receive food as part of the food bank’s latest effort to battle food insecurity brought on by COVID-19.

It was the organization’s third food drive in as many months.

“It’s very important,” said Mendez, 53, who is originally from Guanajuato, Mexico. “It’s always nice when someone does something for the community. To us, it’s very valuable.”

More than 20,000 pounds of food were delivered to the loading bay of the Atlantic Blueberry Company on Friday, and trucks from at least 12 other South Jersey farms were registered to pick up pallets of food for their employees. Each worker from the farms received a box filled with beans, pancake mix, macaroni and cheese, syrup and canned goods in addition to a small crate of corn. Packs of masks were also provided.

The food drive’s host also received food for its employees. According to a form detailing the distribution, Atlantic Blueberry received 375 boxes for its employees at both its Hammonton and Mays Landing facilities.

“It’s extremely appreciated in this kind of environment with all this stuff going around,” Atlantic Blueberry co-owner Art Galletta said. “These people really appreciate it.” Galletta said the company had to quarantine a few employees after positive coronavirus tests, but they had not experienced an outbreak. He also mentioned that due to the health value in blueberries, it’s been a successful season and financial hardships have been kept to a minimum.

“People want to eat healthy during this kind of situation to keep their systems up to snuff,” Galletta said. To maintain social distancing, however, the company has had to reduce the capacity of its living quarters. Elsewhere in Hammonton, Blueberry Bill Farms has done the same. According to 19-year-old employee Luis Ruiz, the dormitories at Blueberry Bill that can hold up to 150 people now only house around 30. “It’s a lot of new stuff that we have to get used to,” Ruiz said. “And I’m pretty sure this is going to last for another year, so this is not going to go away that easily and we have to adapt and get used to all this stuff.” Ruiz has been on a farm most of his life. His father, Jose, has been a manager on the farm for 25 years, and Luis’ family left Michoacan, Mexico, when he was 2 to join him.

Luis said the inclusion of masks was especially important.

“Sometimes we don’t get enough masks to go inside the stores,” Luis said. “And (some of the workers) don’t understand the importance of the mask and all that stuff.”

The food bank held two similar drives for migrant farm workers in Cumberland County. With more than 650 boxes distributed, Friday was the largest of them so far.

“Food insecurity is one of the biggest issues (among farm workers),” said Millie Irizarry-Sanchez, a network engagement specialist and mobile food pantry supervisor for the food bank. “For us to be able to give them some kind of relief, it alleviates a lot of the stress and pressure that’s already on them. They work really hard in brutal heat and weather conditions, and then have to worry about what they’re going to eat.

“Now they have a little something that they can work with.”

A fourth drive is being planned for next month. A date and location have not been determined, but Irizarry-Sanchez said it will likely be in Bridgeton.

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