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Navy vet-turned-teacher donates 200 bags of fresh groceries to those in need via the SALT Foundation

Answering the call of duty, Claudia Wheeler stands firm on the front line in the war against hunger.

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Answering the call of duty, Claudia Wheeler stands firm on the front line in the war against hunger.

Unshaken by the uncertainties of the coronavirus outbreak, the Navy veteran-turned-elementary school teacher champions for New Jersey residents who don’t have access to healthy fare in the wake of the pandemic.

“Covid hasn’t negatively affected my desire to help others,” affirms Wheeler, founder and executive director of the nonprofit hunger-relief SALT Foundation. “It’s actually enhanced it.”

On April 22, Wheeler — armed in a medical-grade face mask and disposable latex gloves — distributed more than 200 bags of free high-quality groceries to the food insecure of Franklin Township.

“On Earth Day, SALT hosted a ‘Community Love’ drive-thru food pantry in association with the Somerset Community Action Program and the Ukrainian Cultural Center,” she explained. “We were able to help more than 200 families and individuals in need by handing out the delicious foods and goods provided by our generous grocery store partners, Trader Joe’s and Wegmans.”

Furnishing her beneficiaries with a smorgasbord of delectables, Wheeler and her band of benevolent volunteers filled the give-away totes to the brim with organic fruits, grains, proteins, and treats.

“We made sure each family received fresh strawberries, blueberries, bananas, and apples,” she said. “We gave out a variety of vegetables and pre-packaged salads. We stocked the bags with chicken, salmon, loaves of bread, milk, eggs, and sweets. And everyone received a bouquet of fresh flowers with their food bundle.”

“People are losing their jobs, they’re having to stay home or they are scared to leave their homes to go into the grocery stores. And when they do go to the store, what they need isn’t always available anymore. The people we help aren’t just the homeless. These people look and live like you and me.”

Adhering to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention guidelines in the midst of the global health crisis, Wheeler opted for a drive-thru food pantry system, hosting the event in the spacious outdoor front yard of the Ukrainian Cultural Center. Wheeler directed the recipients to drive up to a designated servicing stop-point, and to remain in their vehicles while she and SALT volunteers loaded the food supply into their trunks.

“I thought a drive-thru was a safer idea than having people get out of their cars to collect the groceries,” she said. “I’ve found that most people are social, and they tend to want to show their gratitude to someone who’s doing something nice for them by giving hugs or handshakes. Obviously, because of covid, we can’t interact like that. But I’m happy as long as I can still go out into a community and do a service while staying as safe as possible for myself and those I come in contact with.“

A wife and mother of three, Wheeler credits her steadfast selflessness to her parents, Antiguan immigrants, who impressed upon her and her two younger brothers the importance of caring for others.

“We didn’t have much food growing up,” the Jersey City native said. “Times were hard. But whenever we’d have company drop by our home my mom would make sure they ate and were well taken care of. She would gladly give anyone her last."

Wheeler added, “Seeing how giving she was really touched my heart when I was younger. That’s something that stayed with me. And since I was a kid, I’ve always shared with everyone around me. I always want to give back.”

Dedicating her life to service, Wheeler enlisted in the military after graduating from high school in the late ’80s. It was during her tenure as a U.S. Navy storekeeper third class on the USS Samuel Gompers— managing ship inventory and supplying the administrative needs of her fellow servicemen — that she vowed never to grow weary in well-doing.

“Thinking back, I now realize that being in the Navy prepared me for a lot of things in life.”

Wheeler said. “I‘ve seen a lot of different things during my time in the military. And when I (completed my service), I knew I still wanted to serve the community and veterans.”

After raising her family with husband, David, in East Brunswick, and receiving her graduate degree in Elementary Education from Fairleigh-Dickinson University, Wheeler set her sights on enhancing the lives of children. She became a third-grade teacher at Gregory Elementary School in Trenton.

As an educator since the early 2000s, Wheeler has witnessed the unsettling effects of food insecurity in children and families.

“It didn’t really click until I became a teacher how much people really need someone to step up and help (in the fight against hunger),” she said. “I see the kids running (into the school’s cafeteria) to get the school’s free breakfast or lunch. Sometimes I see kids sneak food items into their pockets so that they’ll have something to eat later when they go home. Seeing situations like that over and over again really touched me and inspired me to do something.”

In the weeks before Gov. Phil Murphy signed the executive order closing all public state and county buildings and schools due to Covid-19, Wheeler — with the permission of the Gregory Elementary School principal — implemented an after school food-based parent-teacher mixer. Prior to the event, she bagged fresh fruits and vegetables to gift to the parents after the meeting.

“The turn out was great,” she said of her philanthropic endeavor. “The parents were so grateful for the bags I prepared. Food really brings people together.”

Wheeler, who is sad to be separated from each of her 30 students, is dedicated to building the SALT Foundation into a statewide resource of food and provisions.

Since its inception in December 2018, SALT has collected more than 65,000 pounds of groceries, and delivered the goods to hundreds of residents and families throughout Hudson, Middlesex and Mercer counties.

“SALT is an extension of who I am at home and at school. I just love helping people,” Wheeler said. “I’m all about being there for strangers in need, the same way I show up for my family and my students.”

Wheeler, thoughtful when choosing “SALT” as the name of her nonprofit organization, was inspired by salt’s natural properties and biblical connotations.

“Salt is something that preserves,” she said. “That’s something we know, that something that’s in the Bible. It preserves everything. Keeps things from going bad. And my goal is to serve as ‘salt’ to anyone who needs me.”

“I don’t want SALT to be just about food,” she insisted. “I want to preserve families. I want to preserve communities. My foundation is about uplifting others, and teaching the world to take care of one another. The food is what unites cultures and communities, and I want SALT to act as the hinge that keeps us together.”

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