Volunteer Voices: Atiya Weiss of The Burke Foundation Helps Distribute Groceries to Families in Need

Categories: Blog, Uncategorized

Atiya Weiss (right) grabs some onions to pack up for a family.

On March 27, YWCA Princeton and Arm In Arm held a mobile food pantry in the YW/YM parking lot, and distributed essential groceries to about 50 local families. The mobile food pantry was staffed by YWCA Princeton and Arm In Arm staff and volunteers, including Atiya Weiss, Executive Director of The Burke FoundationThe Burke Foundation partners with non-profits to identify, rigorously evaluate, and help scale programs and policies that foster the healthy development of children and families in New Jersey. Recently, their support contributed to the renovation of YWCA Princeton’s program building and the childcare center, which has since been renamed The Burke Foundation Early Childhood Center at YWCA Princeton.

Atiya spent the morning helping our team distribute groceries, and in the interview below, told us about her role at The Burke Foundation, and the importance of keeping healthy food accessible to children and families in our community.

What is your role at The Burke Foundation? 

As Executive Director, I lead the Burke Foundation’s efforts to invest in the most promising programs and policies that foster the health, well-being, and resilience of children and families in New Jersey. I work closely with our president James Burke to help improve the systems of care for children and families by investing early in New Jersey’s children. Most recently, we launched a statewide action plan in partnership with the New Jersey ACEs Collaborative to address the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) in New Jersey. ACEs — or exposure to highly stressful experiences — can result in long-lasting, negative impacts on children during a critical time in brain development and cause lifelong harm to a child’s physical, mental, and emotional health. We can reduce the effects of ACEs and toxic stress by reducing the sources of stress in people’s lives, fostering strong, responsive relationships between children and their caregivers, and strengthening the core life skills we need to adapt and thrive.

Can you describe the importance of nutrition in early childhood?

Nutrition is a key factor influencing a child’s development. According to Community FoodBank of New Jersey, 1.2 million people in New Jersey are food insecure every day, and one-third of them are children. That’s 400,000 children. Social factors such as inadequate access to housing, income, dietary options, education, and employment greatly affect our health.

Children need nutrients to grow, develop, and focus, and research demonstrates that hungry children have a harder time focusing and are more likely to act out and have lower test scores and graduation rates. We can’t let more children and families go hungry.

The Burke Foundation Early Childhood Center at YWCA Princeton offers two free, nutritious snacks to all children enrolled. How does this benefit children and families in our program?

Providing two free, nutritious snacks is a step toward filling the nutrition gap for food-insecure children. Two snacks also enhance routine and stimulate a much-needed energy boost between meals. Reducing spikes in hunger is important during a critical time for children’s growth and development.

Melissa White, Director of YWCA Princeton’s Breast Cancer Resource Center, coordinating distribution with a volunteer.

What are your takeaways after distributing “grab n’ go groceries” with YWCA Princeton and Arm In Arm?

YWCA CEO Tay Walker and I sit on an early childhood advisory committee that includes parents of young children. When we were discussing how our group could improve childcare in the region, a parent mentioned the need for food, which has worsened because of the pandemic. The parent’s comments inspired Tay to set up a mobile pantry for our communities’ families in partnership with Arm In Arm. I was honored to volunteer at the event, which was very well-organized. Despite knowing how badly people are suffering, I was still shocked to see 50 families lined up for healthy groceries, many of them living and working in Princeton. I appreciated the opportunity to speak with families and learn about several volunteering opportunities with the Arm In Arm pantry. At the mobile pantry, the YWCA did a great job of having a YWCA volunteer share information about free or subsidized quality childcare and wrap-around programs, like ESL classes, with all the families.

As the mother of two young boys, I’m grateful that my husband and I are able to put food on our table without a second thought. I also know that many families are not so lucky, and I want to do my part to help create for all our neighbors the same sense of security and stability that I experience in my own home. I’m grateful to the YWCA and Arm In Arm for helping our community get highly nutritious food and additional services in a dignified way, and I hope we can make the mobile pantry a regular activity.