With Montclair’s schools closed, children who rely on the schools for meals have been given the option of obtaining school meals and groceries through Toni’s Kitchen.

But district staff and community groups may want more ways for families to access food.

On Friday, the district announced that it was opening up additional drop points at four schools, in addition to the current distribution schedule at Toni’s Kitchen.

“Please be advised that beginning Tuesday, May 26, Pomptonian will, once again, be offering breakfast/lunch meal distribution at expanded sites. These sites, in addition to Toni’s Kitchen (no change to current schedule at Toni’s) will be Nishuane, Hillside, Glenfield, and Montclair High School from 11 am to 1 pm, on Mondays and Thursdays.”

When schools first closed back in March, the district, working with nutrition vendor Pomptonian, offered grab-and-go meals at three different schools - Hillside, Nishuane and Montclair High School -  while Toni’s Kitchen provided bags of groceries. On April 6, based on demand, the meal distribution was consolidated into one pickup spot at Toni’s Kitchen.

Julie Winokur brings bags to storage rooms.
Julie Winokur brings bags to storage rooms.

The Montclair Education Association asserts that only a small number of students who need food assistance are getting meals from Toni’s Kitchen. Elyse Hoffman, a teacher at Charles H. Bullock School and a union representative for the Montclair Education Association, said the district had reported that 200 children were going to Toni’s Kitchen to receive school meals, while the MEA understood that the number was closer to 120.

“Either way, that’s a frighteningly low number,” she said during a May 12 Board of Education meeting, adding that there are more than 500 students registered to receive free and reduced-price lunch. She said many families may not be able to come to Toni’s Kitchen due to transportation issues, lack of personal protective equipment, needing to care for small children, or fear of stigma.

Interim Superintendent Nathan Parker said that a total of 959 students from 738 families are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, Just over half of those students take advantage of free and reduced-price meals when schools are in session, Parker said.

Parker confirmed that the meal program was giving out 200 meals a day on average at the start of the program, and that the number expanded when the program relocated to Toni’s Kitchen, but that the number of daily meals on average has declined.

Parker also said, in response to Hoffmann’s statements, that the district was also concerned about how to increase access to meals for families.

With many parents furloughed or laid off due to the pandemic, Parker said any student in town can request meals.

The district is conducting a survey of parents to ask how they would like meals to be delivered, if they require delivery. “If you received a survey from us, please know we are in the process of gathering the results, and if needed, we will contact you directly based on your responses,” the district said on May 21.

New Jersey School Boards Association guidelines state that the district must arrange delivery of school meals to students who do not live within walking distance of a meal pickup site, or who cannot walk to the site. Hoffmann said several of the students are not within walking distance of the kitchen.

The district has also been researching ways to bring meals to more families, including the possibility of using the buses to help with delivery, or of setting up secondary distribution sites at some of the other schools, such as Nishuane, Parker said.

The district partnered with Toni’s Kitchen because the pantry has refrigeration, which is needed for storing meat, produce, and other perishable items, and Toni’s Kitchen is also centrally located to where many of the families who need assistance live, he said.

On top of the grab and go lunches, in March Toni’s Kitchen reported that 1,000 Montclair children and 2,500 Bloomfield children were receiving grocery bags.

On Thursday, May 28, Essex County opened up Charles H. Bullock School as one of its first emergency food distribution sites, with 1,000 boxes of food available to give away to families in need.

The New Jersey School Boards Association advises that if a student does not live within walking distance of a meal distribution site, the district must arrange to have the meal delivered directly to the student’s residence, or handed off to a parent at the student’s usual bus stop:

This guideline was included in a memorandum of understanding sent out from the Department of Education on March 28. The memorandum did not, however, give a specific geographic definition of walking distance.

The National Center for Safe Routes to School, however, has a recommended walking distance of between half a mile and one mile for elementary school students, with sometimes a further distance for middle and high school students. However, the center advises that the geography and safety of the streets should be taken into consideration.

“For eligible students who are not within walking distance of a meal distribution site, the district must distribute meals to the student’s residence or, if the parent/guardian is present, to the student’s bus stop. The district may utilize buses that are owned and operated by the district to distribute meals. Where a delivery is made for a student not within walking distance of a distribution site, up to three school days’ worth of meals may be distributed per delivery.”