REALTOR® Leads ‘Food Brigade’ to Eliminate Hunger

New Jersey real estate pro Karen DeMarco is so committed to fighting food insecurity in her community that she’s cooked 1,800 meals in her kitchen for those in need.

Five years ago, Karen DeMarco, an agent with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Tenafly, N.J., faced a grueling recovery after a double mastectomy operation—and her community showed up for her in a substantial way. “A bunch of friends and neighbors cooked and delivered meals to our home,” DeMarco says, adding that it lifted a huge burden off her family.

Once she recovered, DeMarco wanted to pay the kindness forward. So, she corralled a group of volunteers and created the Dumont Meal Brigade, which would deliver meals to residents facing hardships, such as an illness, job loss or death in the family.

When the pandemic hit, DeMarco wanted to keep the group going but had to shift priorities 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.

Read more stories of REALTORS®’ extraordinary service to their communities at the REALTORS® are Good Neighbors Facebook and Instagram pages.

DeMarco realized that the need in her community was great. So, with the help of friends, community organizations and nonprofits, she expanded her efforts and moved the food drives from her driveway to a church parking lot. “There, we did weekly pop-up drive-through food distributions, with a handful of volunteers loading food boxes into recipients’ cars,” DeMarco says.

But no matter how much more the group did, the volunteers couldn’t keep up with demand. In northern New Jersey where DeMarco lives, poverty and food insecurity go hand in hand, she says. “We’re in one of the most densely populated areas of the country, as well as one of the most expensive due to its proximity to New York City,” she adds. “The New Jersey Economic Development Authority studied the problem of food insecurity and designated 50 regions of the state as ‘food deserts.’”

A food desert is an area of a community, typically urban, in which it is difficult to obtain quality or affordable fresh foods. Some food deserts lack even one grocery store.

DeMarco’s husband decided to transform the effort into a true nonprofit called The Food Brigade, and by the summer of 2021, they were distributing as many as 1,800 boxes a week—totaling 35 to 40 tons of food. They’d created a true community endeavor, coordinating with a network of about 30 other relief organizations. “Eleven of those 50 food desert regions are located in the areas we currently service,” DeMarco says.

The Food Brigade quickly expanded to a second location—then, in February, a third location opened. “Our new pantry location was established to primarily serve people in the Union City and Jersey City North food deserts,” DeMarco says.

Today, the organization serves three counties heavily populated by Black and Hispanic residents, who are disproportionately affected by food insecurity.

In 2022, The Food Brigade helped feed more than 28,000 people, including nearly 9,500 children. In the fall of 2022, the organization even launched an Instacart-style service, where those in need can log into an online account, choose their items and have them delivered to their door. This service, which serves around 150 households, expands access to the pantry, DeMarco says.

Still, the nonprofit makes only a small dent in the need. But DeMarco isn’t giving up. “Our goal is to continue to expand our hunger relief operations by establishing food distribution centers in these food desert regions,” she says. “We want to be in those areas where the need is greatest.”