'We're happy to do this for our comrades'

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Since March 26, George P. Vanderveer American Legion Post 129 in Toms River, N.J., has been teaming up with another local nonprofit and a food pantry to provide hundreds of hot meals and critical supplies weekly to those in need, including local veterans.

For Post 129 Finance Officer Ralph Wolff, it was evident early on during the coronavirus pandemic there would be a need for the effort. And Wolff and others in the post’s American Legion Family wanted to be the ones that filled the need.

“Knowing that unemployment (benefits) were going to be held up for some individuals (and) the stimulus checks were going to be held up, I knew that our veterans would be without funds,” Wolff said. “We started this a little bit ahead of the curve. We did not want our veterans to experience food insecurity. We wanted them to come to a place where if they had to ask for food, they could do it with honor and dignity. We all know each other (at Post 129).”

The state’s largest post at around 1,700 Legionnaires and 2,500 American Legion Family members, Post 129 has been working with the organization A Need We Feed, which works with area restaurants to provide meals for veterans, children and families who are in need. The meals are picked by I Need We Feed volunteers and delivered to the post, which in turn donates money back to I Need We Feed to pay the restaurants.

“It’s a cycle,” Wolff said. “The other benefit is it keeps the restaurants in business and gives them a cash flow.”

Working with the food bank Fulfill, the post also is able to distribute crisis boxes consisting of enough non-perishable foods to sustain someone for three to four days. The post also gets fresh fruit and vegetables to distribute as well, along with paper products.

Members of the Legion Family pack up all of the supplies and food, and the post conducts two meal and supply distributions a week, following strict social distancing guidelines. Post 129 Legion Family members wear masks and load the meals and supplies into the cars that line up at the post.

In a month and a half, Post 129 has distributed 1,284 meals, 992 rolls of paper towel, 4,048 rolls of toilet paper, 295 crisis boxes, 1,000 oranges, and hundreds of pounds of additional fruits and vegetables.

In addition to veterans, the post has provided food and supplies to anyone else in need, first responders and health-care professionals. If there are leftovers meals, they don’t stay unused for long.

“We send them off to the fire department or the police department,” Wolff said. “Last Thursday we had 200 meals. We took 30 of them over to the emergency room at the (Community Medical Center). We took another to the police department. Anything left doesn’t go to waste.”

The reactions from those who have benefited from the post’s efforts have been that of thanks. “They are so grateful that we were able to take even the smallest burden off of them, even cooking their own meal,” Wolff said. “The thing about it is these are nutritious meals. The nutrition in these meals will help sustain their immunity systems. People with weak immunity systems are the most likely to get the virus.

“Most of our veterans are of the Vietnam era. They’re older,” Wolff said. “If I can keep just one of them from going to the grocery store … and keep them safe. That’s what I want to do. That’s what we’re here for. We’re happy to do this for our comrades.”