Food pantry operations explained

NEWTON. Jill Space, director of the Sussex County Board of County Commissioners, offers to answer questions from the U.S. Attorney and the state Attorney General.

| 28 May 2024 | 11:17

Jill Space, director of the Sussex County Board of County Commissioners, defended the operations of the county food pantry in a letter to the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey and the state Attorney General last week.

She also offered to open the county’s books, provide documents, answer questions “and cooperate fully in any and all manners necessary to end the baseless and persistent assaults on the county, food pantry, pantry volunteers and 46,000 food-insecure residents who benefit directly from the food pantry each year.”

At the Dec. 13 commissioners board meeting, Commissioner William Hayden said he had been told that an “angel investor” had donated $2.3 million to the food pantry in the past few years.

After asking for an accounting, he said he received receipts for a couple years. “Those receipts do not come close to what was supposedly donated. That creates a problem.”

He also said some receipts showed deliveries were going out of state.

Hayden suggested that the board “make a full priority to find out a full accounting” and create a nonprofit organization to run the food pantry “as it should have been run.”

”I think the way we are doing it is improper and sloppy bookkeeping and it’ll just lead to a lot of questions we don’t need,” he added.

At that meeting, Commissioner Chris Carney, then director of the board, agreed that a nonprofit organization was a good idea.

He said he also had looked at the food pantry’s receipts. “I did all the math. It was to the penny. I didn’t see anything that was wrong.”

Hayden said he was not alleging wrongdoing. “I just think it doesn’t look right.”

He noted that other governments use nonprofit organizations in similar situations.

Also at that meeting, the board’s attorney, Doug Steinhardt, said he had not seen any tax irregularities. “Quite frankly, that’s between the foundation, the donor to the foundation and the Internal Revenue Service.”

The pantry is run entirely by volunteers and is operated from the county administration building in Newton.

In a letter dated May 20 to the Sussex County administration and Board of Commissioners, Robert Kovic, a Sparta lawyer who is running for a seat on the commissioners board in June 4 Republican primary, said he had been contacted by the FBI “regarding possible financial irregularities taking place at the Sussex County food pantry.”

Kovic said he has spoken to the agent assigned to the matter at least twice in the past four weeks.

At the May 23 commissioners meeting, Space said no county employee or food pantry volunteer “of whom we are aware” has been contacted by any law enforcement agency.

Space’s letter

In a letter dated Friday, May 24 to U.S. Attorney Philip Sellinger and Attorney General Matthew Platkin, Space said she was writing in her capacity as director of the board “with the approval of a majority of its members.”

“In the two years that I have served as county commissioner, I have not witnessed or been made aware of any impropriety, malfeasance, misappropriation, misconduct or illegal activity of any kind at, in or surrounding the food pantry,” she said.

Food drives, such as Stuff the Bus and Cram the Cruiser, account for about 20,000 pounds of food a year provided by the pantry, Space said.

“The vast majority of food and nonfood donations come from the Young Green Foundation ... and usually total between $8,000 to $10,000 per week. Food pantry volunteers place weekly orders online for primarily nonperishable food items at the local ShopRite. Those orders are processed and packaged by ShopRite and delivered to the food pantry palleted and shrink-wrapped, where volunteers unpack, divide, repack and redistribute all the donations.

“The foundation maintains an account at ShopRite, funded by the foundation, which is charged by ShopRite with each order. No money is handled by Sussex County, the food pantry or its volunteers.

“A packing slip is delivered with each delivery, which volunteers reconcile against the online order. Then, twice monthly the county and its volunteers send the receipts and reconciliation to the foundation for its records. ...

“On the singular occasion of which I am advised that the foundation made a non-cash monetary contribution of $50,000 to the food pantry, that donation was tendered to and processed by the county chief financial officer in accordance with applicable law.”

In 2023, the pantry provided about 21,000 meals to adults and 25,000 meals to children, Space said.

“While small dollar donations are received rarely, they are processed and recorded in accordance with standard business practices,” the letter says.