Foodstock is a Food Drive with a Rock Beat

As bands play, the Swisher family’s Foodstock fest aims to pull in 100,000 pounds of donated goods this year.

Bob and Michelle Swisher with daughter Maura at the Lunch Break food bank in Red Bank.
Bob and Michelle Swisher with daughter Maura at the Lunch Break food bank in Red Bank.
Photo by James J. Connolly

Eight years ago this month, Maura Swisher, then a high school junior needing to rack up community service hours, asked her mom, Michelle, for ideas. Michelle suggested they spend an afternoon handing out groceries at Lunch Break, a Red Bank food pantry where Michelle herself had previously volunteered.

The day started well. “At first,” Maura recalls, “each family got three or four bags, to last them the month.” But as Lunch Break’s supply dwindled, Maura and her mom had to cut the number of bags per family to two and then, with food running out, “we had to fill bags half full. I thought, When my family goes to the grocery store, we can get anything we want. But there we couldn’t even give a full bag of rice and canned soup that might have been close to expiring.”

When father Bob heard the tale, he came up with a plan. On October 10, 2010, the Swishers and Maura (the second of their three children) held a barbecue in their Freehold backyard, complete with local band rocking. They invited people to bring canned goods. The goal: 2,000 pounds of food to donate to Lunch Break. Final tally: more than 6,000.

“It was just friends and family, but we were left with such a rewarding feeling,” says Bob, 58, an auditor. “We decided we’d do it again the next year.”

They did, establishing Foodstock (foodstocknj.org) as a nonprofit. The 2011 event pulled in 13,000 pounds of pasta, peanut butter and other long shelf-life staples. The poundage climbed: 23,000 in 2012, 36,000 in 2013.

In 2014, with 300 guests bringing in more than 36,000 pounds of nonperishables, the Swishers (minus Maura, by then studying finance at Penn State) realized Foodstock had outgrown their quarter-acre backyard.

“Parking in the streets became a real problem,” Bob says.

In 2015, he and Michelle, with about 20 friends and relatives who have become the core of the committee, moved Foodstock to the Colt’s Neck Firehouse. There, close to 1,000 people (entertained by four local bands) brought 45,000 pounds of food.

By then, scores of volunteers were helping transfer the food from the party to Lunch Break and to Freehold Area Open Door, a smaller pantry. Move for Hunger, a Red Bank charity, also came aboard in 2015, donating a tractor-trailer. In 2016, Foodstock moved to a permanent home at the Freehold Municipal Building, where more than 1,000 people brought in close to 50,000 pounds.

“We’ve pretty much become dependent on them,” says Gwendolyn Love, executive director of Lunch Break. “No other single donor pulls up with a tractor-trailer filled with food top to bottom, front to back.”

Two annual events coordinated by Foodstock add to the plenty: a February Snow Ball, launched in 2015, and a June golf outing. This year, Snow Ball raised about $7,500, the golf event more than $10,000.

Lunch Break serves hot meals to 125 people a day. More than 850 families each month select free food from its pantry. That number swells to about 1,000 families a month in late fall, as the holidays approach.

Last year, Foodstock set a new record, 58,000 pounds. This year, the event will be held Saturday, October 13. The Swishers—including Maura, now 24, who works in Columbia University’s finance department—have set a goal of 100,000 pounds.

“We’ve been trying three or four years now to get Bruce Springsteen to come,” says Bob. Last year, when the Swishers spotted the Boss shooting pictures at the Freehold Memorial Day parade, they managed to have one of their friends hand him a Save the Date card. “Anybody who goes to Springsteen concerts knows at the end of the show, he asks everybody to give food to food pantries,” says the ever-hopeful Bob. “He’d be a perfect fit.”

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