RED BANK – Critical shortages of food are now being seen on the empty shelves at Lunch Break.Lunch Break is the first line of defense for thousands of people who struggle with hunger throughout Monmouth and Ocean counties, and is serving more and more people every year.According to Gwen Love, executive director of Lunch Break, the number of hot meals served has increased more than 68 percent in the last few years, and the food pantry distributions have increased a staggering 657 percent.Empty food pantry shelves are the result of a severe food shortage at Lunch Break in Red Bank where food distribution has increased by 657 percent during the past few years.“Last year, we served over 56,000 meals and over 500 families depend on Lunch Break every month for their groceries. Add to that our homebound program where we deliver meals six days a week to the elderly, ill, weak and disabled, and the numbers combined are frightening,” she said.“With summer vacation over and the push to get kids back to school and the signs of fall popping up everywhere, at Lunch Break the sign of fall is bare shelves in the pantry,” Love said. “The toughest times of year for us are September and October as well as February and March where we face critical shortages. We try to plan for these months, but with the daily increase in demand for our services, when the food is gone, it’s gone. It’s heart-wrenching to plan and not be able to meet the need. Right now, our resources are critically low.”A month ago Lunch Break was forced to reduce the amount of groceries provided to families from the food pantry.“It’s an overwhelming feeling,” Love said. “If we don’t get food, people are going to go hungry. We’re almost to the season of giving, but we’re not quite there yet. In November donations will really start to pick up, but right now, even though it’s a season of harvest, people just don’t stop to think about the need and that is why we are reaching out to the community. When people realize the need, they are tremendously generous,” Love said.Giving is very easy and safe by donating funds online at www.lunchbreak.org, and the organization also welcomes personal checks or cash at the Lunch Break facility at 121 Drs. James Parker Blvd.Monetary donations give Lunch Break the opportunity to plan meals weeks ahead of time and also give them immense purchasing power. People can also visit the website for the wish list of food items to be donated.“Unfortunately, it’s a sign of the times,” Love said.In a study released recently by the Legal Services of the New Jersey Poverty Research Institute, it concluded that more than 2 million people in New Jersey struggle to meet their basic needs. That represents a significant increase of more than 300,000 since the beginning of the economic recession.Nationally, the poverty line is defined at about $23,000 for a family of four. The study put the threshold at double that number because New Jersey’s cost of living is dramatically higher than the national average.“The worst part is,” Love said, “the study showed that children suffer the most.”Love added that many don’t know that Lunch Break is Monmouth County’s first and most accessible soup kitchen and food pantry, and this year celebrates 30 years alleviating hunger.“Our guests come from near and far – from Keansburg, Keyport, Union Beach, Seaside Heights, Point Pleasant, Neptune and Asbury Park – to name a few. We are open six days a week and we are so much more than a meal to so many. Our Suited for Success program last year outfitted over 125 individuals for job interviews, and we accept new and gently used clothing,” she said.“We provide families with holiday food baskets at Thanksgiving, Easter and Christmas; we offer cooking classes for children; a toy program for children over the December holidays and we partner with over a dozen local social service organizations to provide health screenings, visual testing, affordable housing referrals, veterans assistance, and more, all in our facility in Red Bank,” Love said.Lunch Break is located at 121 Drs. James Parker Blvd. in Red Bank, and can be reached at 732-747-8577. For more information about Lunch Break visit www.lunch break.org.