It’s not easy to get on Karen DeMarco’s calendar. Feeding thousands of people across three counties in New Jersey takes up a significant chunk of her time—and she couldn’t imagine it any other way.
After DeMarco battled breast cancer that resulted in a double mastectomy, her community showed up for her in a big way, cooking and delivering meals to her home. Later, she wanted to pay the kindness forward. So DeMarco, a broker-associate with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Tenafly, N.J., corralled a group of volunteers and, in 2020, created the Dumont Meal Brigade to deliver meals to residents facing hardships, such as an illness, job loss or death in the family.
DeMarco faced spiking need but had to accommodate COVID-19 precautions. “I ended up cooking around 1,800 meals in my kitchen,” she says. DeMarco would box up the food and hold distribution events in her driveway. At the first event, 75 boxes were given out to people facing food insecurity. That number doubled at the second event.
A Vision Comes to Life
DeMarco recognized the need for food in her community was great. She wanted to do more, so her husband, Carmine, encouraged her to turn the Dumont Meal Brigade into a 501(c)(3) organization.
“Karen is a natural caretaker,” Carmine says. “If she sees someone in need, she can’t not do something to help them, and I wanted to support her vision.”
By summer 2021, the Food Brigade was distributing as many as 1,800 boxes a week, totaling 35 to 40 tons of food. The DeMarcos also coordinated with area food banks that were helping distribute food during the pandemic. At one point, they partnered with about 30 pantries.
DeMarco, who calls herself a “big picture thinker,” wanted to do still more. The need was evident: In her 20-year career in real estate, she’d helped countless clients find Section 8 and affordable housing. She’d heard time and time again about the trials community members faced, from being on a fixed income to being one paycheck away from catastrophe.
“I think the most important skill one can have—in real estate, business, or the nonprofit world—is the ability to empathize and build rapport with a wide range of different types of people. People need to know that you hear them, that you’re listening to their concerns and questions, and that you actually understand and care.” – Karen DeMarco, broker-associate, Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage
Carmine helped DeMarco break her goals into the steps. “I’m lucky to have my husband doing this work alongside me. He’s a lawyer. He navigates the various hoops and compliance issues. He reads all the fine print and makes sure we’re doing everything we need to do the way we need to do it,” DeMarco says.
But it’s Karen who brings it all together, Carmine insists. “She makes it work because she has the ability to be very fluid and flexible. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a few unexpected extra pallets of food in a delivery or a truck breaking down and being three hours late—she’s able to come up with a solution on the spot.”
Combining a holistic vision with the ability to navigate such detail, DeMarco has scaled up The Food Brigade significantly in a short period of time. In three years, the organization expanded from one location to three—with a fourth in the works—serving three New Jersey counties. In 2022, the organization fed 28,000 people, and it’s already on track to more than double that number in 2023.
Catering to Individual Needs
Each of The Food Brigade’s locations is a little different, based on the community it serves, DeMarco says.“In our Dumont location, 98% of the residents have access to the internet, so they can register at home and fill out any necessary paperwork right online, but in Union City, only 3% have internet access at home, so we have the forms on site and fill them out with the clients.”
“Karen and Carmine have moved mountains. I can’t believe what Karen is capable of doing. The Food Brigade has blossomed into something amazing.” – Meredith Drobinske, pantry manager
Recognizing that many people who need help can’t come into the pantry—single mothers, disabled elders and those raising children with special needs—and she wanted to be able to reach them. So the organization added an Instacart-style delivery service and partnered with The Food Bank of New Jersey to provide baby diapers, adult diapers and period products.
“Over the weekend, people sign into our online platform and select their food and other options based on what we have available. Our volunteers, who we call ‘road warriors,’ pack up the bags and then deliver the bags to the clients’ homes.”
Building Community Together
With clients and volunteers alike, The Food Brigade is about building community.
“Anyone can hand out a box of mac and cheese. It is what The Food Brigade does above and beyond that that makes the difference. Every client is greeted with a smile and a caring attitude. We’re building personal relationships and community.” – Carmine DeMarco, vice president, The Food Brigade
Meredith Drobinske and her husband Jim are the pantry managers. In the past, Meredith had volunteered at various organizations by cooking and serving meals and says The Food Brigade offers a more immersive experience. She has volunteered since its inception and never misses a Tuesday or a Wednesday, she says. “In my other volunteering roles, we filled people’s bellies, but then we didn’t know what happened to them afterward. This is more about building long-term relationships. We look forward to seeing the clients each week, and they look forward to seeing us.”
For DeMarco, too, The Food Brigade is more than a pantry. It’s a community staple that she wants to grow and nurture so that it perseveres as a resource in the years to come.
“Hunger isn’t going away,” she says. “We’re always going to have to help feed people. That’s just the way it is. So this has to last long after I’m gone.”
Karen DeMarco of Tenafly, N.J., is a broker-associate with Coldwell Banker Residential Realty and founder of The Food Brigade.