By ERIN ROLL
While most students are celebrating being off for the summer, the summer months also mean that many children won’t get enough food to eat. Several local groups are stepping in to fix that.
Toni’s Kitchen kicked off its annual Summer Love food program on Monday. The program, which is funded through a grant from the Partners for Health Foundation, works with other area groups to make sure children have access to healthy food during the summer.
Anne Mernin, the director of Toni’s Kitchen, said the summer was promising to be a busy one. “There are days when we’re going to be putting out meals for 400 kids,” Mernin said.
The end of the school year means that families who rely on the free and reduced-price meal program no longer have access to that food. “Kids are quite literally going hungry in the summer,” Mernin said. Many parents find themselves struggling to pay for both food and child care during the summer.
The Montclair Public Library is one of the beneficiaries of Toni’s Kitchen’s summer programs. The library is offering its second annual Lunch @ the Library program, which offers a free bag lunch each day to any child. The program is a drop-in program rather than registration-only.
The library is expecting at least the same number of children as were served last year, which was 2,448, Library Director Peter Coyl said. Each child age 17 and under will receive a brown bag lunch containing a sandwich, fruit and a dessert. The lunch will be served from 12 to 2 p.m., but the library advises that supplies will be limited.
The Lunch @ the Library program, like the Summer Love program, got a $3,500 grant from the Partners for Health Foundation for staff-related costs.
Anita Peterson, the chair of the Montclair Public Library Foundation, noted that Toni’s Kitchen provides lunches to the library at no charge.
“Providing free lunches to children during the summer break months is another way your public library strives to serve our community,” Coyl said in a statement announcing the program.
According to the Partners for Health Foundation, about 15 percent of children in the Montclair schools are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. That equates to about 1,000 children.
In addition, at least six of Montclair’s 11 schools are classified as Title 1 schools with students that come from low-income families.
One of the Summer Love offerings is the backpack program: Children who are enrolled in preschool and tutoring programs will receive backpacks of healthy food, such as oatmeal, raisins and tuna, to bring home.
The United Way of Northern New Jersey estimates that at least seven percent of Montclair’s 14,472 households are at the poverty level. An additional 16 percent are deemed ALICE families: Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. This refers to families who are above the poverty level, but still have trouble meeting necessary expenses.
In addition to the library, Toni’s Kitchen is working with Succeed2gether, a tutoring program; the township-run summer camps at the Clary Anderson Arena; child care centers like the Montclair Child Development Center, St. Mark’s United Methodist Church and the Bloomfield Public Library.
Volunteers and donors have been generous with their time and donations, Mernin said. But Toni’s Kitchen is especially in need of shelf-stable food like tuna, peanut butter and rice to fill the backpacks, since food donations often decline during the summer. “And we really need that food,” Mernin said. The kitchen is also looking for drivers to help deliver food.
Volunteers are needed to help make sandwiches or pack backpacks full of food. Donors can also sponsor a backpack with a $12 donation. For more information, contact the Montclair Public Library or Toni’s Kitchen.
Over the years, Toni’s Kitchen has gotten better at identifying families who are in need and making food available to those families during the summer, Mernin said.
The library’s lunch program and Toni’s Kitchen’s programs will run until Aug.31.