How ‘Superman’ Feeds the Hungry in New Jersey

Catholic parish works with local charity to feed dozens of families per week.

Phil and Renay Stafford are committed to helping their fellow community members.
Phil and Renay Stafford are committed to helping their fellow community members. (photo: Sean Quinn/Archdiocese of Newark)

WALLINGTON, N.J. — Each morning, Phil Stafford leaves his home around 9 a.m.

He used to go to work as a painter, but no longer.

Instead, until he returns home at 8 p.m., he spends his days collecting food donations for N.J. Food & Clothing Rescue, the charity that supplies the food pantry at Most Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Wallington, New Jersey. In so doing, he helps serve, on average, 50 families per week.

Each week, from local restaurants and convenience stores, he collects one to four tons of food that would otherwise have been thrown away. Of his daily rounds for supplies to sustain the pantry, Stafford says that “most donations offered are not planned. There may not be anything on my schedule that day. Then, all of a sudden, I can be offered five pallets of chicken!”

Stafford’s wife, Renay, is equally involved in this parish effort to feed the hungry. “Saturday morning is pantry day,” she explains. “Volunteers are at the church getting things ready as people start to line up from 9:30 a.m. At 10 a.m., we give out numbers. Then people will leave and come back at 11:30 a.m., when the pantry begins. Phil and I get to the church at about 10:30 a.m., and then we unload my car and his van and set up everything on tables. Once the pantry starts, I call the numbers. Then people go around each table.” The parish volunteers staff the tables, letting everyone know how much of each food item is available that day. “Once the last person goes, we pack up whatever is left,” continues Renay. “Then we have different groups come each Saturday to take what is left so as to donate to people they know who are in need. No donations go in the garbage — everything is given out each week.”

Father Timothy Graff is the director of the Archdiocese of Newark’s Office of Social Concerns, which oversees all food pantries in the archdiocese.

He highlights “the issue of food insecurity as very important to the ministry of the archdiocese.” This is especially so in 2023, he says, when so many are still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, resultant lockdowns and economic aftermath.

“Currently, there is a great need for the help that our parish food pantries provide and the call for our parishioners to be more generous to the needs of the hungry in their communities,” Father Graff says. This care for the poor and those on the margins of society, he says, is “an integral part of the Gospel. When we feed the poor, we are answering a Gospel call. But we are not just showing our concern for the hungry — we are also showing our love for God himself. To show our love for others shows our love for God.”

The parish pantry at Most Sacred Heart of Jesus Church is run through the N.J. Food & Clothing Rescue, a charity started by the Staffords in 2015.

Each week, on average, the charity helps 2,000 families directly or indirectly through its network of partners. The charity’s beneficiaries take away from the pantry between $75 and $150 worth of food.

Unlike many other charities, N.J. Food & Clothing Rescue does not require its clients to be a resident of a particular county, a member of a specific faith or even a U.S. citizen.

“We ask people to register for the pantry, but people have to be in need,” says Renay. “Someone would need to be on Medicaid, food stamps, WIC, disability, unemployment or a veteran. We also check the N.J. poverty guidelines for income. If someone is working, they would need to show two current pay stubs.”

Christina Rodriguez has been both a client and volunteer with the parish pantry for the past five years. “I am a mother of five kids,” she tells the Register. “I work paycheck to paycheck. I make a minimum wage, and the only thing I get help with is rent. So, we struggle,” she says. “I sometimes do not have enough money to buy food in our house because so much goes to pay for bills and any emergencies that tend to happen when you have children.”

“In the past, I went to other food pantries, and they give you a bag of food and send you on your way,” Rodriguez says. “With Phil and Renay, they let you pick your food. There is nothing wrong with either way, but a lot of times the bag of food I got from other pantries would have food that my kids can’t eat due to allergies. When I’m able to pick what we need (and not over-pick), it’s great.” Today, as a result of her years with the parish pantry, Rodriguez views the Staffords as “family.”

“They’re there whenever I need help,” she says. “I can call Renay late at night and explain what we are going through, and the next day there comes a van full of food to help us. I don’t know many people who would do that, not even family. So I am greatly grateful for them.”

Renay, 61, has lived in Wallington since she was 3 years old and therefore has been a parishioner at Most Sacred Heart of Jesus Church most of her life. Not surprisingly, faith is central to what she does each week at the parish pantry.

“I always feel that God put us in the position to help others,” she says, “and this is what we need to do. If it was not God’s will to help those in need, we would not be in a position to accept donations. He provides the opportunity for us to continue helping others by making donations accessible to us.”

Her husband Phil, 64, is not Catholic. Has his involvement in this Catholic social action changed his perspective on the nature of charity?

“The work has not changed my perspective,” he replies. “It has always been the same — you are supposed to help others.”

In Phil’s case, this desire to help others was born out of bitter personal experience. In September 1999, on his 40th birthday, he lost all his possessions as Hurricane Floyd caused waters from the nearby Saddle and Passaic Rivers to flood his Wallington apartment. The lack of government assistance available on that occasion left him feeling depressed, he recalls. It was that experience of a distinct lack of state charity that led him to get involved with local food banks and later to start a charity serving the needs of the Wallington community.

The inspiration for N.J. Food & Clothing Rescue came due to Stafford’s helping at a local food bank one Thanksgiving holiday. That year, the food bank did not have enough turkeys for all of its families, so he solicited poultry donations through Facebook. Eventually, he managed to obtain and distribute a turkey to everyone, which prompted the food bank leader to call him “Superman” (a nickname that persists). It was this experience that caused Stafford to form his own charitable organization. And for this year’s forthcoming holiday, N.J. Food & Clothing Rescue hopes to provide everything needed to prepare a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for 368 families.

N.J. food pantry
Turkeys are on the menu.(Photo: Courtesy of Renay Stafford)

Recently, when Stafford quit his job as a painter, at which he earned a good living, to work full time with N.J. Food & Clothing Rescue, it was a decision he describes as “scary,” but not one he regrets, even though his average working week now clocks in at around 100 hours.

“I am working, and my pay, thankfully, can pay the bills. But we are like most of our clients: living paycheck to paycheck. But it is all worth it, knowing that we can help so many people in need.”