Toni’s Kitchen typically serves meals four days a week in the Sawtelle Room of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Montclair, New Jersey. Before the coronavirus pandemic, 12-step groups also met here every day. Now it functions as a grocery store. Photo: St. Luke’s Episcopal Church

[Episcopal News Service] The economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic is changing the 38-year-old Department of Food in a Newark Diocese parish. Toni’s kitchen at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Montclair, New Jersey has quadrupled the number of meals served each week, leading the Ministry to overspend and turn its normally quiet building into a busy grocery store .

“I’m amazed at what’s going on here,” Rev. John Mennell, principal of St. Luke, told the Episcopal News Service during a recent FaceTime call. “We’re a food processing juggernaut right now.”

Before mid-March, when New Jersey residents started seeking refuge and people started losing their jobs or seeing wage cuts, Toni’s Kitchen averaged 4,000 meals a week. Now the ministry serves the equivalent of 20,000 meals a week. The entire 2020 budget of $ 55,000 has been spent on food and supplies purchases, but community businesses and residents are responding to the ministry’s appeal for help.

Even before the economic impact of the pandemic, food insecurity was a real but hidden problem in this seemingly affluent suburb of New York City. Montclair is one of the wealthiest communities in New Jersey. It is also a study of contrasts.

One block west of St. Luke’s are multi-million dollar homes overlooking the Manhattan skyline about 20 miles east. One block east of the church is “another world altogether,” said Mennell, with a large immigrant and African American population struggling to make ends meet.

“God brought us here so we could figure out how to use the resources of those who are willing to share them with those who need them,” he said.

Seventeen percent of students in the Montclair school system receive free or discounted meals, Anne Mernin, executive director of Toni’s Kitchen, told ENS. That number should be closer to 25%, she added, but older students tend not to want to be identified as such.

“There are a lot of hidden needs” in the suburbs, and many people assume that food insecurity is not an issue, according to Mernin.

In 2017, Essex County, which includes Montclair, had the highest food insecurity percentage of any county in the state.

The hallway that leads to the offices of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church is usually empty. Nowadays, it’s packed with groceries and supplies like toilet paper ready to be given away. Photo: St. Luke’s Episcopal Church

Meanwhile, food insecurity continues to rise rapidly across the country. The Brookings Institution reported that at the end of April, more than one in five households in the United States and two in five households owned by mothers with children under the age of 12 were food unsafe. “Young children suffer from food insecurity to an unprecedented level in this day and age,” the report said.

Toni’s Kitchen was founded in 1982 with the aim of “serving our needy neighbors” and is named after its first cook, Antoinette “Toni” Green.

When Toni’s Kitchen responded to the needs of the coronavirus pandemic, St. Luke’s reconfigured its space for food storage and distribution: every open space on the first floor – the office suite, conference rooms, dining room, and hallways – is stacked with food . There are “walls of food and what changes here changes every day,” Mennell said as he walked through the building and broadcast on FaceTime.

The church parking lot now has two rented 20-foot fridges and freezers, a rented 16-foot grocery pickup truck, the church van and a van donated by the Montclair Art Museum, and a makeshift grocery outlet.

Volunteers have always been key to the ministry’s success. Today they work in small groups for two-hour shifts between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. most days. They wear masks, gloves and disposable aprons. A timer rings every 20 minutes to signal a glove change.

Parishioner Michael McDonnell comes in at 6 a.m. several days a week to get inventory where it needs to be before someone else is there to get in his way. The Fallace family (mom, dad, and two sons, ages 12 and 8) arrive at 7 a.m. on Sundays to pack bags of groceries and then return home to watch the online St. Luke service 9 o’clock to see.

“It is amazing to see the commitment of so many [who are] willing to take risks to serve their neighbors, ”Mennell said. “We have transformed so that we can serve God’s people, so that we can act in love and reach our neighbors.”

The setup isn’t the only part of Toni’s kitchen that works differently now. Instead of sitting at tables in the dining room four times a week, the homeless and near-homeless who the ministry serves usually line up outside and volunteers bring them bags of ready-to-eat meals, produce and dry goods.

In addition, around 350 seniors with insecure diets who live in three low-income social housing units receive four ready-to-eat meals and basic foods every week, the costs of which are subsidized by the community. Kiwanis Club volunteers are delivering similar packages to an additional 150 elderly people living in their own homes.

“Seniors were very affected,” said Mernin. “Even if you have the funds to shop, you may not have the neighbor or relative to go out and do it for you.” However, the number of seniors in need of help has decreased and is expected to decrease over time, she said.

“The number we would expect are families. The ones we’re seeing are the ones who have lived closest to the bone and have the least amount of cushion, ”Mernin said. “If they lost their jobs or got a significant wage cut, they just didn’t have enough to get them through.”

The entrance to the St. Luke Parish Building is used to safely distribute basic groceries to hungry families. Photo: St. Luke’s Episcopal Church

To serve these families, the ministry has expanded its healthy backpack program. The program began as a way to provide healthy, shelf-stable foods and products to students and families in Montclair and neighboring Bloomfield school systems who qualify for free and discounted meals at school. The difference now is that no questions are asked about income and this is attracting more immigrant families to come to eat.

The demand is increasing. As of May 1, the healthy backpack program had packages for 80 families, but “they had a line of 200,” Mernin said. The ministry will have enough food for 250 families for the next distribution.

Continuing the expanded service means promoting more food and donations. “We beg, we beg a lot,” said Mernin.

The New Jersey Community Food Bank has been an “important partner,” she said. Donate collectives, grocers and markets supported by the local community. The ministry’s advisory committee is contacting traders and farmers to further diversify its food sources. There are community initiatives to buy groceries in local restaurants and donate to Toni’s Kitchen.

“We’re also buying more groceries than ever before, which is why we’re so dependent on donations from the wider community,” Mennell said. When Mernin suggested buying $ 25,000 worth of groceries the first week, Mennell said, “We both swallowed and said, ‘Okay, we have the money now; Let’s hope we can keep doing this. ‘”

The department wants to be flexible enough to accept unexpected donations, such as the 500 gallons of milk that came in the first week of May. Sometimes the food is close to spoilage, but the dispensers know Toni’s Kitchen can distribute the food quickly, Mernin said.

More than 1,000 individual donors have made financial contributions in the past two months. Last month, donors donated $ 80,000 to a matching fund established by the Partners for Health Foundation, the Schumann Fund for New Jersey, the Montclair Fund for Women, and the City of Montclair.

Two Montclair High School juniors, Lucy Solomon and Sarah Shiffman, raised nearly $ 15,000 in Closing the Distance, a fundraiser they organized that included nearly three hours of online appearances by local students and alumni.

Toni’s Kitchen will be there for the long term, said Mernin and Mennell.

“The long-term economic impact of this downturn will increase food insecurity and slow donation,” Mennell said. “We want to be able to serve the community over the long term. While we have amazing support right now, we also want to be able to serve the community for the months and years to come.”

– Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg retired as Senior Editor and Reporter for Episcopal News Service in July 2019.