Volunteers prepare meals at Toni’s Kitchen.

for Montclair Local

Montclair eighth-grader Sam Lewis has been a young man on a mission for several months and counting this year, and this past week he finally brought the mission to a close when he delivered around 50 brand new hand-knitted items to the Human Needs Food Pantry. 

Sam initially wanted to knit and donate the items earlier in the year for his Mitzvah Project (children often do a good-deed project the year they are being called to the Torah for the first time as Bnai Mitzvah). He had enlisted others to join him and knit 10 clothing items each when the pandemic hit, making it impossible to finish the project until further notice.

This year has put a wrench in many plans, with charitable giving and volunteer work taking massive hits as job losses and social distancing make things harder to accomplish. With the holidays and colder weather just around the corner, organizations have started to pivot as they figure out how to continue to serve the community.

Montclair eighth-grader Sam Lewis delivers around 50 hand-knitted items to the Human Needs Food Pantry.

It is impossible to ignore the recent rise in demand for services. In October, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a 6.9-percent national unemployment rate, and locally organizations have suffered the effects. At the Human Needs Food Pantry, where Sam donated his armfuls of scarves, hats and gloves this week, Executive Director Mike Bruno said that before the pandemic, they served over 800 families on a regular basis. In October alone, the pantry distributed food to over 4,300 people. 

“[They’re] really hurting,” Bruno said. “It’s sad to see so much job loss, and businesses closing and downsizing. People who have never been in this position now find themselves there.”

Anne Mernin, director of Toni’s Kitchen, which serves the community’s food-insecure through several programs, says that the 4,300 meals a week they served to the community last year has risen to 20,000 a week this year. Now, the dining room where they served meals functions as a warehouse to assemble grab-and-go meals and bags of groceries. 

“Our families are usually invited in to eat in the dining room, but we can’t have people inside,” Mernin said. “We now cook a hot meal and distribute it on South Fullerton to the homeless population, and families can come to our setup outside our doors in the parking lot to pick up food seven days a week.” 

Holiday outreach 

For many, in the slow drip of months since the pandemic began, worries have shifted from which toys and accessories to give and receive to keeping warm and eating a hot meal.

“We plan to give families turkeys and all of the things that go with a Thanksgiving meal,” Bruno said. The pantry, which serves 14 towns, distributed Thanksgiving meals to 1,100 families last year, and Bruno anticipates that number will be much larger when accounting for the recent spike in demand. “People are coming from everywhere,” he said. “They’re scrambling, looking for assistance.”

In addition to donations of meals, one long-standing holiday staple in the community service tradition comes courtesy of the Thanksgiving community meal served at the Salvation Army Citadel. Volunteers prepare and serve a meal to anyone who comes by, and diners are welcome to take a seat at a table. 

But the guidelines surrounding COVID-19 have made that tradition unsafe for the time being, leaving organizations to figure out logistics.

The Salvation Army’s Major Brett DeMichael said the Thanksgiving meal they usually serve to about 250 people will have to be scaled back this year, and the typical 100 or so volunteers will not be able to assist. 

“We have to follow safety guidelines,” DeMichael said. “But we don’t accept the idea of doing nothing. We have to adjust what we are doing; we are going to serve in the best way that we can.” The Citadel will serve Thanksgiving meals to about 25 to 30 people on-site, and deliver additional food to the homebound and shut-in clients.

The Salvation Army also plans to operate its Adopt-A-Family program to provide gifts and toys for children, and invites volunteers to ring bells as part of its classic Red Kettle program, which will be in effect with a COVID-19-appropriate twist courtesy of a cashless option. “You can still put money in the bucket, but they will have signs with the option to use Apple Pay or Google Pay or go straight to the website to donate,” DeMichael said.

Calling on the community

Wealth disparity remains an issue in all communities, and Montclair is not immune. According to 2019 census figures, of the 38,564 residents who call the town home, 7.6 percent live in poverty. About 14 percent of school-aged children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, according to Niche.com.

“We have always been a community with a tremendous amount of socioeconomic diversity,” Mernin said. “We also have a sizable number of families who are really struggling.” 

On the day Sam brought warm, fuzzy winter gear to the Human Needs Food Pantry, his mother, Marlene, said the number of people lined up to assist was impressive, but then again, so was the need.

“It would be easy to stay holed up during a pandemic and assume in a town like Montclair that no one is hungry or that people here automatically have money for cold-weather essentials,” she said. “But, as quickly as the donations came, they left.”