Toni’s Kitchen Helps Thousands of Newly Food Insecure Individuals, Including Montclair School Families

For 88-year-old Anita Geffinger, going to the supermarket on her own has become nearly impossible. She’s lived alone for 20 years, and growing up in New York, she never learned how to drive. A Montclair resident since 1977, Geffinger didn’t have much trouble getting to the store.

“I would go down to Bloomfield Avenue, and then I would take the bus down to Aldi, or sometimes I would take the bus up to Acme, and I could usually walk back from there,” said Geffinger. Since the onset of the pandemic, Geffinger doesn’t dare get on the bus. She’s already lost a dear friend due to coronavirus.

Because of a car accident last July, long, uphill walks have been out of the question. So how does someone like Geffinger get to a supermarket these days? She’s one of the many Montclair residents who have suddenly found themselves needing food assistance. Toni’s Kitchen has stepped up to help her — and thousands of Montclair residents.

Toni’s Kitchen is a soup kitchen and community center operating out of St. Lukes Episcopal Church. They typically serve 4,600 meals a week, according to Kerry Giles, a Toni’s Kitchen administrative member and bookkeeper.

“Now over the past month we’ve increased to about 16,000 meals a week,” said Giles. The coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic downturn have increased food insecurity.

Toni’s Kitchen has nearly quadrupled production in the last month. They’ve had to do this while abiding by social distancing protocols, and increased sanitary precautions. In the past, Toni’s Kitchen had one cooking shift a day. Now they have three to four. Their dining room is now a warehouse, where pallets of food are delivered daily. There’s a large refrigeration unit in the parking lot. Soon a freezer unit will stand next to it. Toni’s Kitchen is also preparing for the number of people who need help to grow in the coming weeks and months.

“Everything that we do now is different than what we did a month and a half ago,” says Toni’s Kitchen executive director Anne Mernin.

Toni’s used to provide a soup kitchen for the homeless and near homeless communities. Recently they’re making those meals to go. The Montclair Kiwanis Club has created a distribution network of drivers who deliver groceries and meals from Toni’s Kitchen to 205 senior citizens every Saturday, Geffinger is one of them.

Toni’s works with the Montclair Center Business Improvement District to deliver around 300 meals to senior living facilities every Wednesday. They’re also getting food to seniors in Bloomfield, through the Bloomfield Police Department.

“Seniors are especially hard hit during this because they can’t go out. If they don’t have a neighbor or a family member who’s bringing them groceries, many of them don’t have access to groceries,” said Mernin. Toni’s Kitchen is working with Montclair Township to identify more seniors in need.

Before the pandemic, Toni’s Kitchen had partnerships with Montclair’s schools, libraries, and tutoring programs to discreetly distribute groceries to children and their families through their “Healthy Backpack” program.

“All of those partner programs pretty much disappeared as soon as everything shut down, but we know that there was that need plus significant other need,” said Mernin.

New Jersey has required that low-income students, who are part of a free and reduced price lunch program, continue receiving meals during the homeschooling period. Those meals are supplied by the food service provider, Pomptonian.

“We partner with them so that when families come to pick up those, they’re also getting groceries because we know those families are in very very high food need, so they need more than the lunch that’s coming,” said Mernin.

Toni’s Kitchen has also opened themselves to families who are newly food insecure. They can pick up food without any form of income screening.

Around 31 million American kids eat school meals every day, and 21 million of them get it for free or at a reduced price according to Bettina Elias Siegel, author of “Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World” and advocate on issues relating to children and food policy.

“For two thirds of those kids this meal is really critically important, and maybe the best source of nutrition they get during the day,” said Siegel. Due to the coronavirus, all of New Jersey’s school meal programs have had to reinvent how they distribute food, and families rely on them more than ever. “School meals are a really big part of our safety net, and when a school closes and those meals are no longer available, it really can leave families in a very precarious situation,” said Siegel.

Toni’s Kitchen providing groceries to families who are newly food insecure has become critical for those who didn’t qualify for assistance before the coronavirus. Siegel notes that it’s hardly a silver lining given the disastrous nature of this pandemic.

“I think it is beneficial to our society that this pandemic has really lifted the curtain on how precarious people’s lives have been, how widespread food insecurity already was, how close people were to tipping over into food insecurity, how many people were living paycheck to paycheck,” she adds.

Toni’s Kitchen has helped many of these newly food insecure people, from all ages and backgrounds, largely through support from the Montclair community.

“We have a community that really values every member of it. I think we have this deeply embedded in our DNA and our community steps up to really support us. The fact that we still have volunteers coming in and working hard on many shifts everyday is just remarkable,” said Mernin.

Geffinger is a volunteer at the Montclair Public Library, Jazz House Kids and, occasionally, Toni’s Kitchen. To all the volunteers at Toni’s Kitchen, she says. “Thank you, I love you, and I’ve already made my donation. It’s just the right thing to do.”

Maxwell Zeff is a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst studying Journalism and Communication. Zeff is an Assistant Editor for the Op/Ed section of the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, as well as the Podcast Director for the newspaper.

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