Montclair Soup Kitchen Is Beacon Of Hope In Shadow Of Coronavirus

Eric Kiefer
·6 min read

MONTCLAIR, NJ — Throughout history’s darkest moments, there have been community strongholds where the stout of heart have made their stand. And amid the new coronavirus crisis, Toni’s Kitchen in Montclair is proving to be one of those strongholds.

In the past month, the beloved soup kitchen has been rallying endless shifts of volunteers to cook more than a thousand meals for its visitors, many of whom struggle with homelessness and financial distress.

Adapting its tactics to practice safe social distancing, Toni’s has been packing up meals to go, allowing its guests to stay fed, and virus-free. (See video below)

The kitchen has also been packing thousands of food bags for local students and their families, as well as delivering groceries and prepared meals to hundreds of older residents in Montclair.

Meanwhile, Toni's facility on South Fullerton Avenue has undergone a transformation as the coronavirus wreaks havoc on the community.

READ MORE: NJ Coronavirus Updates (Here's What You Need To Know)

Last week, staff converted the dining room — which has been temporarily put out of service — into a warehouse with a huge stock of staples such as oatmeal, tuna and shelf-stable milk.

The soup kitchen has also been ramping up its cleaning procedures to deal with the virus. According to a social media message from Toni’s, it hasn’t been easy:

“It's been a tough week and we know this is a long road we travel. As we are all adjusting, Toni's Kitchen has witnessed the reservoir of #hope and #resilience that runs deep in our #community. We may not be able to wrap ourselves in the physical closeness we long for right now, but the constancy of reaching out, adjusting, finding new ways to work collectively is tangible. It is our light. Thank you to everyone who has donated time, money and food this week. We are deeply grateful.”

It’s not just Montclairites who have been benefiting from the soup kitchen’s hard work. Bloomfield seniors are getting similar home deliveries in coordination with the Bloomfield Health Department, and the food pantry at Bloomfield College has been restocked for students who remain on campus, Toni’s Kitchen Executive Director Anne Mernin recently reported.


COMMUNITY SUPPORT IN A DARK TIME

Good deeds have been the currency of the day at Toni’s since 1982, when the self-described “food ministry” was launched at St. Luke's Episcopal Church. Since then, Toni’s Kitchen has been a rock-steady place to find a warm meal and a shelter from the storm for people throughout Essex County, reaching 180,000 meals served in 2018.

Toni's has evolved into something much larger than a “soup kitchen.” Today, it also helps connect its guests with financial, health and counseling services, operating seven days a week.

Part of Toni’s Kitchen’s success stems from the massive support it gets from local residents. More than 2,000 volunteers lend a hand at the busy food ministry, working in tandem with more than 60 community partners.

And since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, this huge support system has risen to answer the call.

On Friday, the township of Montclair donated $20,000 to the kitchen’s coronavirus relief effort. (Learn how to make a donation to Toni’s here)

“Toni’s Kitchen volunteers and staff have been working tirelessly to ensure that everyone in our community has access to nutritious meals,” Mayor Robert Jackson said, thanking the ministry for its efforts.

Township officials pledged to match any donations up to $20,000, a challenge that was soon met by the Montclair Foundation, which awarded Toni’s the full amount.

“It’s astonishing how quickly they responded to this pandemic with increased services to the community,” said Deborah Hirsch, the foundation’s grants chairperson.

Throughout the township, local businesses have also been rallying to their neighbors’ aid, using Toni’s Kitchen as their launching pad to create positive change.

Last week, a group of Inwood Avenue residents pooled their money and bought $1,200 of frozen meat from local restaurant Stuffed Grass-fed Burgers, which has also been going through tough times due to the coronavirus shutdown.

The meat then went to Toni’s Kitchen, which gave the donors a big social media shoutout.

“It all happened within just a couple of days — zoom zoom zoom,” a resident involved with the effort told NJ.com. “I think people want to feel like they’re doing something.”

Other businesses have been helping the township Division of Senior Services/Lifelong Montclair with meals and food delivery for older residents, using Toni’s as a hub.

According to Montclair town officials, Antika Grill co-owners Fady Ghazal and George and Nancy Amir currently donate 360 meals per week for older residents.

“Fady, George and Nancy reached out to us and have been unwavering in their commitment to contributing delicious meals during this crisis,” said Senior Services/Lifelong Montclair Director Katie York, who helps oversee the operation.

Another local business, Rao's Homemade (part of Sovos Brands), donated 360 jars of pasta sauce, 360 containers of pasta and 390 jars of soup to Toni’s this week. Meanwhile, Gelati by Mike is providing food donations and volunteering staff time and vehicles to help with deliveries.

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Other community groups — and citizens — are also pitching in.

Team members with the Montclair Center Business Improvement District have been helping to collect donations and deliver food. The Kiwanis Club of Montclair has been building the volunteer base and training new volunteers, thanks largely to the efforts of the organization’s manager, Peter Ebling.

The call to arms has also enlisted the aid of Township Fire Chief John Herrmann and Second Ward Councilwoman Robin Schlager, who volunteer their time to help with deliveries.

While the goodwill has been in ample supply, there’s still a pressing need for food donations and financial aid, Mernin said.

Earlier this month, the soup kitchen has started to see its first inquiries from local families who have lost their otherwise-steady incomes due to the coronavirus crisis. And it’s expected that the need for food will increase “significantly and rapidly,” Mernin said.

“Please look out for your neighbors,” Mernin urged. If you see an unmet need, please reach out. Stay safe, and hold your families close.”

Send local news tips and correction requests to eric.kiefer@patch.com

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This article originally appeared on the Montclair Patch