In 2020, a significant need for food assistance led City Council President Sharon Ashe-Nadrowski and Business Administrator Melissa Mathews to establish the Bayonne Food Bank.
But funding for the food bank is now in limbo.
Residents in need
Weekly deliveries at 16th Street Park serve families with kids, the elderly, and the many residents suffering financially from the pandemic. The food bank also makes home deliveries.
“The majority of our students in Bayonne are on subsidized or free lunches, and food insecurity is a persistent problem in many communities,” Mathews said. “Hopefully it will subside a bit as we normalize, but because of frictional unemployment [changing jobs] and economic fluctuations, it’s always good to have a way for individuals and families to have access to free food if it is needed.”
Even before COVID-19, there was a need for food assistance.
The distributions at 16th Street Park used to be hosted by a Hunger Free Bayonne, a nonprofit not associated with the city, continuing into the early pandemic. Ashe-Nadrowski said that, for safety reasons, the Office of Emergency Management tried to shut down these distributions, but they continued, with social distancing and other precautions.
Hunger Free Bayonne soon expanded to become Hunger Free Unity in the Community and no longer served only Bayonne. However, residents still needed food assistance, even when Hunger Free wasn’t in town.
The city could not operate a food bank as a municipality, Mathews was told by the Law Department; a nonprofit was needed. So Ashe-Nadrowski and Mathews stepped up to establish the Bayonne Food Bank.
A tangled web
Donations of food and money are essential for the Bayonne Food Bank’s survival.
“Currently we have no operating budget,” Mathews said. “We take donations from private individuals, companies, and nonprofits.”
But a nonprofit was needed in order to accept food donations to the food bank from Table to Table and the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, the food sources for the Bayonne Food Bank. Ashe-Nadrowski said that during the COVID-19 pandemic, many residents sought to give monetary donations to the food bank, which also required a nonprofit.
So the food bank accepted both food and monetary donations through the BEOF, a nonprofit, under the banner “Bayonne for Bayonne.” The money was then transferred to the city from the BEOF in order for the food bank to buy food.
“We served as a nonprofit pass-through so that people can receive a tax deduction on their donation,” explained BEOF Director Samantha Howard.
“Initially we used the BEOF to raise funds through Bayonne for Bayonne,” Mathews said.
But the “hodge-podge” partnership formed during the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t a permanent solution. While the BEOF assisted with donations, it turned down operating the BFB full-time.
“[The BEOF] has a pantry already, and undertaking the qualification of applicants and delivery of food is a lot of logistics,” Mathews said.
As a more permanent solution, Mathews proposed using her personal nonprofit, The Mathews Foundation, to operate the food bank. The idea was the foundation would be able to accept around $10,000 in donations raised by Ashe-Nadrowski and Mathews to purchase and distribute food.
Because Mathews is a city employee, BEOF attorneys wanted to determine there was no conflict of interest. Mathews said her solution aims to quell potential conflicts and provide transparency.
“Because of a potential clear conflict of interest, Council President Sharon Ashe-Nadrowski and I decided to create a dedicated account and use 100 percent of all funds for the purchase of food,” Mathews said.
The BEOF lawyers have reviewed the matter, according to Ashe-Nadrowski, but she and Mathews are still waiting for a letter of no conflict of interest from city attorneys, indicating that the city is okay with the money being transferred to The Mathews Foundation.
Meanwhile, federal funding for the food bank available through the Community Development Block Grant CARES Act (CDBG-CV) is also being held up due to lack of a no-conflict-of-interest letter.
“The federal government, through Housing and Urban Development [HUD], provided CDBG-CV funds,” Howard said. “That is funding [HUD] set aside to deal with any COVID related emergency. And a food crisis is definitely part of that.”
“We haven’t spent any of that money yet because of the whole issue with figuring out how [the city] is going to allow us to spend that money,” Ashe-Nadrowski said. “There is money available; we just haven’t been able to figure out how to actually access that money.”
“Currently we have received none of the CDBG-CV funds that were allocated toward the food bank by the [city] council,” Mathews said. “We have made every effort to make this possible … We agreed to qualify all recipients per HUD guidelines and handle all paperwork in our free time and at no cost to the city. The BEOF could keep 100 percent of the allowable administration funds, and we would do the work voluntarily.”
How the drawdown works
Without access to the donations, the Bayonne Food Bank can’t use the CDBG-CV funds, according to Mathews.
“As a 501c3 we could combine the use of tax free donations and the CDBG-CV drawdown to fund food purchases to deliver to residents in need,” Mathews said.
The foundation would front the money, buy the food, and then draw down, or be reimbursed by, the CDBG-CV funds.
“For Sharon and I, getting food to individuals in need was and is the most important thing, and we were willing to put in the effort,” Mathews said. “Unfortunately, despite requests, we have not received a ‘no conflict of interest letter’ for approximately 10 months. In March, the council approved the transfer of $10,000 that Sharon and I raised for the food bank to The Mathews Foundation to start the draw down of the CDBG-CV funds. But without the letter we have been trying to get for months, the money is not able to be spent.”
Is time running out?
There is a timeline for the city to spend those funds, according to Ashe-Nadrowksi.
“Right now we are just hoping that the city can figure out how to get the letter of no conflict so we can begin the CDBG-CV draw down before HUD takes the money away from the city entirely because it was not spent,” Mathews said.
Meanwhile, without the funds, nonperishable food distributions and deliveries have ceased.
“We had to stop food distributions when we were unable to get the funds from the city for the food to deliver,” Mathews said. “Sharon and I often personally purchase food for residents in need and deliver it to them when they reach out.”
What is distributed at 16th Street Park is perishable foods donated by Table to Table and the Community Food Bank of New Jersey.
“The food that we’re giving out now is mostly perishable,” Mathews said. “Sometimes we get nonperishable, but most of it is perishable. We give it out the same day. The food that we would be able to buy with the CDBG-CV funds would be nonperishable food that we could give out to qualified families on a consistent basis.”
According to Law Director Jay Coffey, the letter of no conflict of interest is still in the works for the approximately $10,000 in donations. The funds are currently in a city account pending completion of the letter.
While it remains unclear what the holdup is regarding the letter of no conflict, a rift between Coffey and Mathews has been widening.
Mathews is currently suing the city for gender discrimination, citing the alleged behavior of Municipal Services Director Tim Boyle and former Assistant Business Administrator Mark Bonamo. Coffey is also named in the suit.
The lawsuit states that Mathews formally reported Boyle on May 31, 2020 for “his direct and indirect bullying, intimidation, and or abuse” of Mathews. In response, Coffey allegedly told Mathews that “she should have a beer” with Boyle to “smooth over everything.” In August of 2020, Coffey allegedly told another municipal employee that Mathews had a “problem with men,” according to the lawsuit.
A secret audio recording of Coffey has gone viral, in which Coffey allegedly said: “F*ck her. I’ve been here 30 years. I’m not going to kowtow to this jerk… I talked to my wife about this: I’m going out with my sword with this lady, not on my shield.”
Still in limbo
Regardless of the reason, due to the delay of the letter of no conflict of interest, neither the donations nor the federal funds are currently available to the food bank to purchase food.
“We still do not have the letter to be able to access our funds and the federal funds allocated for food,” Mathews said.
For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at email@example.com.