Last summer, as the COVID-19 pandemic surged and any work environment that wasn’t deemed essential shut down, Jersey City native and founder of the SALT Foundation, Claudia Wheeler, was meeting the virus’ economic fallout head-on in the form of a drive-thru pantry.
The SALT Foundation has been providing fresh healthy food to those struggling with food insecurity since before the pandemic, and has become a major and ongoing provider to the network of community fridges in Jersey City. Earlier this week by phone, Wheeler recounted the lessons she learned as she was providing food to those in need.
“Doing the food distributions and the drive-thrus that I’ve done, I was actually asked the question, ‘What is it that you look at or what do you use as a way to say, ‘Okay, yes, I’m going to give this person food’ or ‘No, I’m not going to give certain people food,’” Wheeler said.
But Wheeler’s vision wasn’t trying to sift through cars in a food giveaway drive-thru. Food insecurity is pretty much everywhere, she said.
“Across class, across demographics. The (coronavirus economic fallout) did something not just to those who are already at a deficit, it did something to those who are several levels higher as well,” Wheeler said. “Even though I work along with several food banks, sort of piggybacking off of what they do, I think I’m getting more into the nitty-gritty of what’s out there and what’s needed – those who are just so insecure with their food and just needing someone that’s within the community in the trenches with them pretty much to just help them without judging; not needing to see their identification, not needing to see anything but you just have a need, you just have a family to take care of, and this takes off the table having to pay out for it.”
During those days where supermarkets were limiting the number of people who could be in a store, Wheeler’s drive-thrus allowed people who were afraid to have contact with other people get food.
“And of course they couldn’t see my big smile behind my mask, but they saw it in my eyes.”
Wheeler’s smile, along with the food her foundation is helping to distribute, reflects a key part of her foundation’s mission. She’s not just trying to feed people. She’s also an educator, and in a world where a sense of community is often lacking, she’s trying to stoke it.
“Salt is actually a preserver from the beginning. Way before refrigerators, the way to preserve anything was to use salt. And part of what I want to make sure happens is not only the community is preserved, but the family and the individual is preserved.”
What’s worth preserving is also part of what a well-rounded education entails, and Wheeler recognizes the role education plays in that process being more widespread.
“Education is not just the academics,” she said. “Math, reading, social studies – that’s not the only part of education that an individual would need. … It’s building around the whole person. What’s healthy to eat? How do you help one another? How do you make our community better? How do you keep the streets clean? Everything. It’s a big, big picture.”
As Wheeler and SALT have risen to the challenge of constantly helping to stock Jersey City’s community fridges – “Once we fill it up, it’s pretty much gone. Mutual aid is definitely needed, and I hope other communities try to do it as well “– it’s always done with the most nutritious food they can get.
“I could easily go just anywhere as a 501c3 and just say, ‘Give me what’ s left over so I can help those in the community,’” Wheeler said. But partners like Trader Joe’s, Wegman’s and N.J. farms that take part in gleaning (where a percentage of what is grown every year is given to the community, Wheeler said) -- all of these entities help to not only provide communities with food, but “... you want to keep them healthy as well.
“Why would I want to give them something that is pretty much slowly deteriorating them because of how it’s processed or what’s processed in it?” Wheeler said.
Wheeler herself is someone who’ll have a French fry from McDonald’s. “But I choose to make sure for myself and my own family, we eat as healthy as possible. And for what I would for myself, my body and my family, I want to do for my community – the families in my community, the individuals in my community.”
To learn more about the SALT Foundation, including news on upcoming food giveaways and ways you can donate or help, visit http://www.thesaltfoundationinc.org/.