By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

When the pandemic hit in 2020, Toni’s Kitchen, with a mission of ending food insecurity in Montclair and housed at St. Luke's Episcopal Church for 40 years, stepped up its operations, more than tripling its outreach, and moving most of its operations to the parking lot.

The heightened need is not going away, said the Rev. John A. Mennell, rector of St. Luke’s, speaking on the behalf of Toni’s Kitchen Director Anne Mernin. But some neighbors were not happy with the increase in operations, which went from 4,300 weekly meals served indoors to 20,000 weekly meals either picked up from the parking lot or loaded into trucks for delivery. 

Two neighbors filed complaints in September and October 2021 with the township, citing what they alleged were violations of code and health ordinances over an increase in traffic and noise. Township officials say they’re looking into the complaints, but no citations had been filed as of Tuesday (Montclair Local’s print deadline), and a health inspection Dec. 3 found no violations at the time. Township Communications Director Katya Wowk hadn’t yet answered a message asking for an update this week on any possible citations by press time. 

“The parking lot is used to store and operate large refrigeration equipment,” one resident, whose name was redacted by the township in a copy of the complaint provided to Montclair Local after a public records request, wrote. “The parking lot is used as a receiving area for large quantities of food and materials similar to that of a large grocery store. The parking lot is used to load delivery vans. The parking lot is used as a staging area for non-incidental food and grocery distribution ... in a manner not unlike a grocery store or meal delivery service. The activities are not incidental and adversely affect the residential character of the area. The parking lot and sidewalks are used for transportation of materials.”

Carmine Davino, Montclair’s code enforcement operations supervisor, told Montclair Local the township’s zoning office is looking into allegations under the zoning code, and “if any zoning violations are found, code enforcement will be instructed to issue the appropriate violation notices. Code enforcement is currently investigating the food storage and the garbage overflow/storage issue.”

In 2019, Toni’s Kitchen served meals mostly in its sit-down soup kitchen, and provided grocery deliveries to seniors. But in 2020, the soup kitchen had to close its door due to social distancing requirements and to mitigate the possibility of COVID-19 spread. The operation moved to the parking lot, serving hot meals to go for soup kitchen guests, groceries for families, and frozen meals and light groceries delivered weekly to shut-in senior citizens, Mennell said. 

“Since the pandemic began, we have experienced the greatest demand in our history,” he said. “The pandemic has exposed the extent of food insecurity in Montclair, and even as COVID restrictions begin to lift, economic stress and job insecurity means that the need for our services is not diminished. Part of our mission is to end food insecurity in Montclair.”

In another complaint to the township, a resident complained about the noise the increase in services is creating.

“The refrigeration equipment creates excessive noise,” that resident wrote. “The activities of the occupation create excessive noise, most notably the rolling of carts over paved services, the idling of box trucks, the backup alarms from delivery vehicles and the honking of horns.” 

Mennell said that the organization doesn’t have more trucks coming in for deliveries since the onset of the pandemic, and that they average about one delivery a day. 

“They just bring a lot more when they come,” he said. “Our deliveries before the pandemic might have been a pallet or two, but now it can be three or four times that. We needed additional food storage and are using temporary refrigeration units in our parking lot.” 

In another email, a writer questioned whether the volunteers and Mernin had the proper food handling certification; the Health Department confirmed to Montclair Local that they do.

Steve Rufolo, the senior registered environmental health specialist with the Health Department, said the “person in charge of Toni’s Kitchen,” which would be Mernin, has a food protection manager certification.

“It is an advanced food handler’s certificate obtained from a private company. This certification supersedes the permit obtained after attending our course,” Rufolo said, adding that Montclair’s food handler class was not offered during the pandemic, so Mernin sought out a private course. 

The residents also complained about garbage overflow and the placement of a portable bathroom. 

With the closing of public bathrooms throughout Montclair, the township placed and maintained portables at Toni’s Kitchen and the Salvation Army. They were removed last fall when public facilities began opening up.

Councilman Peter Yacobellis said he spoke with one of the neighbors last fall after learning of complaints. Lori Price Abrams, council member for the Third Ward where the church is located, did not return an email sent March 7 asking about the situation. 

“I understand that it’s a residential area, but we were in a crisis. No one has been through a pandemic before. No one thought about the noise. Wwe just thought about the kids needing to be fed,” Yacobellis said. 

Since learning about the concerns from neighbors, Mennell said, the operation has arranged for drivers to deliver only on weekday mornings after 7 and not to make deliveries using 18-wheelers or park on Union Street; worked with the township to ensure that a dumpster is not emptied before 7 a.m.; turned the two refrigeration units housed in the parking lot so that the fans face the church building, not the neighbors; and purchased new, quieter carts used in the parking lot. 

“We continue to make changes to improve Toni’s Kitchen for both the people we serve and our neighbors. To do this we maintain all required permits from food handling to fire safety,” he said. “We are confident that we can both care for those in our community who are hungry and live in a mutually beneficial relationship with our neighborhood.”

The church also hopes to break ground on April 18 on an expansion of its basement that would allow the refrigerator units and the produce that is now taking up room in the former dining area to be housed there. It is seeking township approval to enclose the dumpster area to keep it out of sight, Mennell said.

Toni’s organizers also hope to reopen the daily meal service indoors in April so that their guests will have a communal meal experience and be able to socialize once again, he said. And, as they do for seniors and shut-ins, they hope to be able to offer grocery delivery to more families who now pick up from the church in the future.

Mennell said that they welcome feedback from their neighbors and the community on their services at Toni’s Kitchen because he believes food insecurity could only worsen with rising gas and food prices.

“People shouldn’t have to decide whether to pay for medicines, pay for gas to get to work or food on the table,” he said.