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Volunteers cook up lunches four days a week for those who may be facing food insecurity.
KELLY NICHOLAIDES/ FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

BY KELLY NICHOLAIDES
for Montclair Local

On a sunny Saturday afternoon at Toni’s Kitchen, the TNT Ramblers strum folk tunes, crooning of hope and love to around 80 residents seated and chatting around tables. In the kitchen, volunteers ladle out minestrone soup, check on the pork roast, stir the pasta and season a mushroom, pea, and brussel sprouts platter. Loading hot lunches on paper plates and rolling carts, the group begins serving. Four days a week, the non-profit serves meals at St. Luke’s Church to around 65-80 individuals each day. 

“How are you doing?” a bearded African American gentleman asks as he leans his cane next to the folding chair and takes a seat. “I’m keeping it okay, with this job or that job. I’m trying,” replies his young friend as they break bread. A silver haired Caucasian woman with a walker lowers herself into a chair nearby. A slim young male in paint splattered jeans walks to a counter and asks if there’s any size nine sneakers in the clothing donations. A volunteer says she’ll check.

Around a third of the attendees at the day’s meal service are homeless. But most have incomes. They include seniors, disabled adults and the working poor, some of whom may skip meals in order to pay for medical expenses, car repairs, rent, commuting costs and other bills that can consume large chunks of household budgets. Since 1982, Toni’s Kitchen fosters independence, respect and dignity. It feeds anyone who walks in, no questions asked. Some may not meet income thresholds to qualify for food subsidies. Others don’t get enough to cover the entire month. 

A meal at Toni’s Kitchen may be the only meal attendees get for the day.

“In recent years, suburban hunger has been hidden. There’s a stigma. The gig economy built in a lot of food instability. People are working with no health insurance and no retirement plans. These added costs have moved on to the individual, and wages are not keeping up, so more people need food support long term,” said Anne Mernin, Executive Director of Toni’s Kitchen.

In Montclair, a U.S. Census report in 2013-2017 estimated that 4,000 households were receiving food stamps, now known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). The maximum amount for an individual earning $1,815 a month was $189 in food stamps, the latest Essex County social services data shows. The majority of households getting SNAP have at least one working family member and nearly all are on poverty wages or income levels, according to the Center for Food Action – New Jersey.

Proposed federal changes to SNAP may add visitors to Toni’s Kitchen. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees SNAP, is closing a loophole that allows states to make participants receiving minimal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits automatically eligible to participate in SNAP. 

Opponents of the proposed changes are concerned over eligibility ending with small increases in earnings, instead of being gradually phased out, and modest savings among families with low-incomes threatening their SNAP benefits. 

“For decades, researchers and advocates have been shining a light on the need for all Americans to have some form of savings to respond to emergencies, forestall debt and otherwise begin to build some modest assets or short-term financial crisis should not have to immediately liquidate modest savings to get critical food assistance,” said Carole Johnson, Commissioner of the Department of Human Services.

The proposed rule would create additional challenges for working families. As proposed,

it would result in tens of thousands of children in New Jersey becoming no longer eligible for SNAP, who would therefore also lose direct access to free school meals, said Johnson.

Overall, the rule change may cut benefits to 68,000 New Jersey residents, critics say. The USDA estimates that 16 percent of U.S. households would see increased benefits, but 19 percent would see a decrease. SNAP benefits are calculated by subtracting a series of deductions from a family’s gross income. If a family’s expenses for rent and utilities is more than half their income, the family can then deduct those housing costs. 

The cuts would total $4.5 billion in savings over five years.

For a household to receive SNAP benefits, they must receive a TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) benefit of at least $50 a month for at least six months. The program must provide benefits or services that support working, such as childcare.

Complicating the food insecurity issue, many individuals who are eligible for SNAP do not apply for it. According to a 2017 New Jersey SNAP-Ed Needs Assessment report completed by Montclair State University, nine percent of the state’s residents participate in SNAP, representing only 60 percent of those who are eligible for it. 

For struggling families, if a parent gets the flu or breaks a leg, they may slip into an unstable housing situation, Mernin noted. “In those moments it’s hard to dig your way out. We should be looking at SNAP as a way to prevent food instability. We should be investing in it, not making it more difficult to get. SNAP keeps kids in school, families in housing, and mitigates the impact of the gig economy,” Mernin said.

To fill the community’s needs, Toni’s Kitchen uses multiple approaches and services, in-house and throughout Montclair. The distribution of 500 backpacks of food every week in schools and after care programs is vital. “We put the food where there’s a need. Instead of people having to deal with bureaucracy and lack of dignity in asking for help, we find the populations and programs that need assistance. In the school programs, we pick up the empty backpacks on the following week and provide new ones, filled with items like oatmeal, pasta, rice and beans, peanut butter, and tuna. We use around 100 of those backpacks for fresh produce,” Mernin said.

Approximately 2,000 volunteers put time in at Toni’s Kitchen. The organization is a lifeline for Montclair’s most vulnerable population. 

Retired legal assistant Phyllis Antonicello started volunteering in 2016 on Saturdays. Now she’s here three times a week. “I like being creative with the cooking, and the people who come here like me and love the food. They’re so appreciative,” said Antonicello. “It feels good not because of what we do, but to see them clean the plates.”

At Toni’s Kitchen, volunteers will continue to serve meals on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 11:30 a.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m. at 470 South Fullerton Avenue. For more information, including volunteering and fundraising opportunities and donations, visit TonisKitchen.org.