COVID-19: Montclair charities try to cope with increase in need
By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS and ERIN ROLL
Volunteers at Toni’s Kitchen helped pack food for hundreds of children and their families on Saturday, March 21, while the Human Needs Food Pantry is trying to cope with difficulties in staying open. Montclair Emergency Services for the Homeless (MESH), meanwhile, said the homeless they help are struggling with downgraded services.
The Human Needs Food Pantry found itself dealing with supply chain problems caused in part by people panic-buying items at grocery stores. MESH is trying to continue meeting the needs of Montclair’s homeless population, but social distancing rules mean the daily sit-down cafes have been replaced by grab-and-go meals, and the overnight respite shelter for cold weather can no longer take as many people.
Over the last few weeks, Toni’s Kitchen volunteers have cooked over a thousand meals, packed several thousand food bags, and delivered food. Officials said social distancing has been strictly enforced, while meeting the needs of senior citizens who no longer have senior lunches to attend and students who are no longer receiving free or reduced meals at school. Toni’s Kitchen’s regular soup kitchen patrons are still receiving regular meals, but now those meals are now being prepared as take-out.
Students from the Montclair and Bloomfield school districts are receiving food bags and fresh produce as they pick up their lunches. Executive Director Anne Mernin said about 3,500 students in total are receiving bags: 1,000 students from Montclair, and 2,500 from Bloomfield. All of those students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals in their respective districts.
A partnership between Montclair Senior Services, Toni’s Kitchen and the Kiwanis Club of Montclair has formed to provide several hundred seniors with meals, healthy staples and fresh produce delivered to their homes or senior buildings. Deliveries began last Tuesday and all buildings and senior residents had received groceries and meals by Friday.
The kitchen also provided pantry foods for students that had remained on campus at Bloomfield College.
Additionally, an average of 75 people a day receive meals through the soup kitchen.
“People are becoming unstable very rapidly,” Mernin said, and that includes people in the service industry, those who work for hourly wages, or people in the gig economy.
For senior citizens, many of them are afraid to go to the store, due to the risk of infection, and many support services for senior citizens have been shut down.
The need has been so great that Toni’s Kitchen ran out of food last week. The kitchen ordered $20,000 worth of food to restock the shelves, and that is expected to see them through next week, Mernin said. But more is needed. “We need ALL food items,” Mernin said. And financial donations are needed even more, since the kitchen can buy food more cheaply through sources such as the Community Food Bank of New Jersey.
“Your financial generosity is helping to cover the unprecedented need. As we move forward we continue to need you in the days ahead,” said Mernin.
Mernin said the community has been very supportive. “We have an amazing community, and people have just dropped everything to help.”
The restaurants have donated their produce and dairy items. It’s a little hard to receive those, Mernin said. “Because this is their livelihood.”
To give food or to volunteer visit Toni’s Kitchen website, toniskitchen.org.
HUMAN NEEDS FOOD PANTRY
Human Needs announced Friday, March 20, that it could suspend operations for two weeks while the pantry works out arrangements with other community partners to keep donations and deliveries running.
Store limitations have also created problems for food banks and pantries throughout New Jersey. The pantry is also experiencing interruptions with supply chains that provide it with food.
The problem, Executive Director Mike Bruno said, is the hoard-buying at grocery stores. “It wasn’t that there wasn’t a food shortage, it’s that they created one,” Bruno said. Finding proteins like beef and chicken has become problematic, he added.
On Monday, March 23, pantry officials announced that even though the physical location on Label Street was closed, the pantry was working with local health service agencies in the hopes of continuing meal deliveries to homebound residents. The pantry is also hoping to set up curbside delivery for regular clients over the next two weeks.
Human Needs will also continue its long-standing arrangement with Toni’s Kitchen, with Human Needs supplying food supplies and Toni’s Kitchen providing cooked meals for Human Needs to deliver.
The pantry’s volunteer staff of 60 to 80 people dropped to five people, with the virus outbreak and volunteers worried about becoming sick. “We just couldn’t keep up with it.”
The ARC of Essex County, which provides vans and drivers for deliveries, had to curtail its operations due to a volunteer shortage.
“The long and the short of it is, we were trying like heck to stay open,” Bruno said.
For more information on how to help, visit humanneedsfoodpantry.org.
MESH provides cafe services for homeless people during the day, and overnight respite services at night during cold weather.
But on Friday, March 20, MESH director Gwen Parker Ames said the group’s mission has become more complicated due to COVID-19.
“It’s been really tough. Right out of the gate, we’ve had to change our program delivery,” Ames said.
MESH is no longer able to do sit-down cafes in the afternoons. Instead, meals are provided in to-go containers. “And it’s different,” Ames said. “We definitely make it healthy, but it’s sandwiches, and it’s salad.”
With the closure of sit-down dinners and the libraries, the homeless are experiencing a loss of social interaction. The cafes are a time for people to socialize and talk to one another. With the cafes no longer being sit-down, that social aspect has been taken away, Ames said.
The Montclair Public Library, where many homeless people go during the day, is closed until at least the end of March.
Another concern is cold weather. MESH provides overnight respite to homeless people when the temperatures drop to 32 degrees or below, which is life-threatening for someone who is exposed to the elements, typically between November and April. The overnight respite typically accommodates about 20 people, but with restrictions on social distancing, Ames said they are now limited to 10 people.
For people that MESH cannot let in, MESH gives out Mylar blankets, but Ames said that situation is not the ideal.
The community has been very supportive, Ames said, with restaurants providing meals and with the general community sending in donations.
Aimes said disposable food containers are needed, along with trash bags, as well as Mylar blankets.
MESH has been going to places such as Montclair’s train stations. Through this, Ames said, the group might be reaching people that they might not otherwise reach.
For information on how to help, Ames may be contacted at Drgpaisia@yahoo.com. The organization’s website is meshmontclair.org.