Chris Dickson and David Wagner became acutely aware of the statewide hunger epidemic while volunteering for the Community FoodBank of New Jersey. The experience inspired them in 2009 to launch Rent Party, a monthly live-music fundraiser for food pantries in Maplewood and South Orange.
As the music events grew in popularity, Dickson and Wagner expanded Rent Party’s reach. In 2012, they met with Karen Weiland, director of the Parenting Center for the South Orange–Maplewood School District, to express concern that children receiving free or reduced lunches at school might not have enough to eat on the weekends.
“They were so easy to work with, so full of enthusiasm—and they targeted the issue perfectly,” Weiland says. Rent Party soon launched its BackPack Pals program, collaborating with social workers and administrators to distribute weekend sustenance with “absolutely no stigma.” Currently, the program supports about 100 children.
Due to stereotypes of “who hungry people are,” Dickson explains, it’s often easy to “overlook the fact that more quote-unquote ‘affluent’ towns might have an issue with hunger.”
Weiland agrees. “The stories come in every which way from families you would never expect,” she says, citing community members who struggle to put food on the table after losing their jobs or falling behind on bills.
Dickson and Wagner later established the Rent Party Garden on the front lawn of the South Orange Elks Lodge. It annually yields about 2,000 pounds of produce, which volunteers harvest and donate to local pantries.
Max Coey, 12, has been working at the harvests for two years. (“He can run the show,” Dickson declares.) Coey helps with deliveries to Our Lady of Sorrows food pantry, where people line up for produce each week. “Their [faces] light up as we walk past them with the bins of fresh veggies,” Coey says. “That’s the best part—to see their smiles.”
For Dickson, Rent Party’s impact was best embodied in a quiet moment after a Saturday harvest. An elderly Russian woman he’d often seen at the food pantry pulled up on her bike. “She just looked at me, and in broken English she said, ‘Good.’”
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