'Stuff the Bus' campaign in tenth year; Annual countrywide food collection slated for this weekend

(L-R) Newton Police Chief Mike Richards, Andover Township Police Chief Eric Danielson, Mohawk House owner Steve Scro, Sparta Police Chief Neil Spidaletto, Byram Township Police Chief Pete Zabita, and Stuff the Bus founder Carol Novrit gathered at the Mohawk House on Monday, November 12, 2018 to discuss the details of this year's 10th Annual Stuff the Bus food collection initiative. (Photo by Mandy Coriston).

Sparta - It’s Stuff the Bus Weekend in Sussex County, and founder Carol Novrit is hoping to mark the initiative’s tenth birthday with an abundance of food for the county’s food pantry. This year, there are more drop-off locations than ever, and Novrit is thrilled to have the help of area businesses and law enforcement. The final details for this year’s campaign were nailed down in a meeting at the Mohawk House in Sparta on Monday, Nov. 12.
Novrit, who is the Administrator for the Sussex County Department of Health and Human Services, says that when she began working at the County Services Building, she didn’t even know there was a food pantry.
“I’d been there for a while when I found out about the food pantry,” she said, “I was so excited when I discovered we had one, but there wasn’t much food to distribute.”
Novrit began devoting more time and energy to the pantry, and it has become, she said, “My heart. The food pantry is my heart. I would worry on Fridays, because I knew hungry people would be looking for food for the weekend, and I was afraid we wouldn’t have anything to give them.” Novrit said one day she walked in and all they had was some broth and a jar of cocktail onions. “That was it,” she said, “The shelves were bare, and I knew I had to do something.”
That ‘something’ was the inaugural Stuff the Bus campaign. In the first year, Novrit was lucky to catch the attention of local radio personality, Rob Morehead, who at the time was the disc jockey at the helm of the morning show on WNNJ. Beginning with that small partnership, Stuff the Bus has grown through the years to include sponsorship from First Hope Bank; Nielsen Automotive, who provide vehicles to transport the collected goods; Steve and Rachael Scro of the Mohawk House; and the support of local police.
Byram Township Chief of Police Pete Zabita praises the work of Novrit and the other volunteers at the food pantry.
“It’s so wonderful that all the food stays in Sussex County,” Zabita said, “and aside from filling their main pantry, Carol also helps stock all the other pantries in the county, as well as in Netcong.”
Zabita and his officers man the drop-off location at the ShopRite in Byram.
“It’s amazing, the stories we hear,” Zabita said, “We have people give us full carts of groceries and tell us that the food pantry helped them out when they were going through tough times. Now they’re in a position to give back, and they do.”
Zabita also said that sometimes people give them cash donations, of which 100 percent is used to purchase grocery items, and often donate the turkeys and hams they’ve earned with grocery rewards points.
Andover Township Police Chief Eric Danielson lends his town’s resources to the event, sending officers to assist Byram with collection at ShopRite, loaning their police trailer for transport, and lending the use of the fire department’s chest freezers to store frozen goods during the drive. During the weekend, collected items are stockpiled at the auto body building which Steve Scro owns in Lake Mohawk, and taken to the food pantry when the building opens Monday morning. For his part, Scro is always excited to give back.
“It’s important to bring people together for causes,” he said, “and to involve people who have passion for what they’re doing.”
The Sussex County Food Pantry is located in the County Services Building at 83 Spring Street in Newton, and is accessible to anyone in need of food during regular business hours, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. All meal bags are distributed according to the person’s situation and capabilities to prepare the food. Chief Zabita said he was in awe of the way the volunteers sort the goods.
“Everything is separated by people’s needs and means,” he said, “Prepared foods for people who may only have microwaves, bags especially for single mothers, bags for people who may be homeless or have no access to appliances. It’s this crazy system, and it’s incredible!”
Novrit said that in addition to providing food to anyone who comes into the pantry in need and distributing food to other pantries, they also have a program called “Backpack Snacks” which provides a weekend’s worth of nutrition to children from food-poor families.
“We fill them with canned meals, oatmeal, granola- things like that,” she said, “This helps keep these children from going hungry all weekend when they aren’t at school getting a free or reduced lunch. And we try to send home enough, because we know they are sharing with their families or younger siblings.” The Sussex County Food Pantry currently has a Backpack Snacks agreement with five school districts.
As for this weekend’s collection event, Novrit wants people to know that no donation is too small.
“Any can of food is a can of food we didn’t have before,” she said, “And one of the best things about Stuff the Bus is to see the joy that people get from giving.”
The 2018 Stuff the Bus initiative will kick off on Friday, Nov. 16, at First Hope Bank on Newton-Sparta Rd. in Andover, with live radio broadcasts from WNNJ and WSUS beginning at 6 a.m. The complete list of collection locations and times for the tenth annual Stuff the Bus campaign is as follows:
Friday only:
First Hope Bank, Andover Branch, 11/16, 6 a.m. - 7 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday:
Byram ShopRite, 11/17 and 11/18, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Carl’s Auto Body Shop in Lake Mohawk, 11/17 and 11/18, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Newton (Hampton) ShopRite, 11/17, 8 a.m. - 7 p.m., and 11/18, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Franklin ShopRite, 11/17, 8 a.m. - 7 p.m., and 11/18, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Sunday only:
Sparta Stop and Shop, 11/18, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.