By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
If someone told Annette Warner 20 years ago she would be waiting in line at a food pantry in 2020, “I would be like, ‘Hell no,’” she said.
But last spring, when the novel coronavirus hit, Warner found herself — like so many others — facing loss of income. Grocery store lines rounded the block, only for shoppers to find low food inventory when they got in. Food insecurity, for many Americans, became a reality unlike any seen this century.
Social service organizations that assist those in need, such as Toni’s Kitchen and The Salvation Army, pivoted from soup kitchens to food pantries and grocery delivery services. Residents also entered the scene, offering to do grocery shopping for neighbors and creating little food pantries across town.
Upping their game
The Salvation Army Montclair Citadel changed from offering sit-down meals to grab-and-go lunches for its 70 or so clients. It continued to allow people to shower and provided new socks and underwear to guests.
With clients not being able to come and go in the building, the town set up port-a-potties outside, Salvation Army Business Administrator Michele Kroeze said.
For the first time, the location also offered a food pantry of sorts, Maj. Brett DeMichael said.
“For an extended time in the spring, summer and into the fall, we were able to operate as a food pantry. So we distributed 50 to 60 food baskets. We would call them ‘boxes’ that were meant to feed a family of four for five days,” DeMichael said.
“That was a really big deal because people were finding themselves food-insecure — families. Aside from serving lunch in the middle of the day, you know, [we were] putting a meal on the table for their family in the evenings. That was a change that was really beneficial for us and beneficial for the community, I think.”
Warner said it was a much needed blessing for her. She was able to keep her job of 16 years “in corporate,” but at lower pay.
She discovered The Salvation Army around Thanksgiving. Warner said she hadn’t eaten for a couple of days, because she paid a bill instead of grocery shopping.
“And then it got to the point where everything was just falling down. So I came here on Thanksgiving day and they were serving Thanksgiving meals. And the two ladies were sharing with me that we offer lunch here Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays,” she said.
She has been using The Salvation Army’s services ever since.
In January, The Salvation Army began opening up its gym for people to sit, socially distanced, to have lunch on-site and mingle with others.
In New Jersey, The Salvation Army saw a 450% increase in clients seeking help with food insecurity. Maj. James Betts said the organization went from fewer than 2 million meals served annually statewide pre-COVID to more than 8 million.
Toni’s Kitchen at St. Luke’s Church also had to close its doors to diners. It expanded operations indoors and rented freezer and refrigerator trailers to become a warehouse of sorts. The organization pivoted to boxing hot grab-and-go meals and packing grocery bags for pickup and delivery service. It was able to grab a large food supply order just as the pandemic set in and food sourcing became a problem, while “sadly,” Executive Director Anne Mernin said, restaurant owners began dropping off their perishables as the lockdown set in.
“There were three problems in the beginning — finding enough food, a diversity of food and healthy food,” Mernin said.
Pre-COVID, the soup kitchen averaged 250,000 meals annually, but is now up to over 1 million, she said.
“Schools were closed. We had more families under stress. And seniors were afraid to venture out to the grocery store. There was a much bigger need,” she said.
Toni’s Kitchen serves anyone who shows up seeking help, regardless of finances.
“We don’t don’t ask questions,” Mernin said. “We don’t want anyone to wait until they are down to their last dime.”
The organization found it had fewer volunteers, due to people’s concerns for safety and the need to social distance. But it created multiple shifts of “pods” — groups that would stay together for tasks such as cooking, warehouse work, packaging or loading.
A new addition to Toni’s Kitchen is a food truck in which volunteers venture out to train stations, parks and parking lots, serving hot soups and sandwiches. The organization hopes to team up with medical and dental vans as well to provide services.
“It’s been really fun. Who doesn’t like a food truck?” Mernin said.
Another organization, the Human Needs Food Pantry, is delivering up to 230 meals a week to senior citizens, Executive Director Mike Bruno said. Volunteers drop the meals off on the front porch. ARC of Essex County, which usually helps with the deliveries, could not send vans due to a staff shortage.
As the lockdown began in March 2020, some residents began shopping for their elderly or immune-compromised neighbors. Montclair chef Abraham Dickerson, of ABE Foods, began buying food for the seniors at First Montclair House, a senior housing complex.
“They are looking to stop seniors from going out of the building. It’s just a matter of time before there’s an outbreak,” Dickerson said at the time.
With store delivery services such as Instacart and PeaPod experiencing weeklong delays or even shutting down services due to being overbooked at the time, Dickerson said, such services soon were in high demand throughout Montclair.
He told Montclair Local that it took a lot of patience — he often had to visit several stores, not just those in Montclair, and his shopping trips, which he made every other day, took hours.
Little pantries cropping up
In the fall, seeing that many in Montclair were still suffering from the economic effects of the pandemic, resident Jose German-Gomez, who is also president of the Northeast Earth Coalition and a Montclair Parks and Recreation Advisory Board member, began a Little Free Pantry movement in town.
The first one was set up on Oct. 11, 2020, at First Congregational Church. Similar to the Little Book Libraries, the pantries are cabinets with glass doors and stocked by volunteers multiple times a day. Hosts such as churches, libraries, the state and individuals help keep them stocked with food, German-Gomez said.
Littlefreepantry.org describes the broader national movement as a “crowdsourced solution to immediate local food needs. Whether it’s a need for food or a need to give, the mini pantries help feed neighbors, nourishing neighborhoods and building communities.”
German-Gomez said, “Concerned about the need for food during the pandemic crisis, we installed the first one at the church to complement our community garden there. After the end of the gardening season, we saw the need to support people facing food insecurity.”
The first pantry was a success from day one, inspiring German-Gomez to install more. With four pantries in Montclair, at the First Congregational Church, Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair, a home at 86 Elm St. and Trinity Temple Church of God, the Northeast Earth Coalition Free Pantry Project is now a community food network.
The project has expanded to four townships: Montclair, Cedar Grove, Bloomfield and Clifton. In addition, two families in Upper Montclair installed pantries in their own front yards.
Every month, each pantry distributes more than 1,000 pounds, so the Northeast Earth Coalition pantries together distribute more than three tons of food a month, German-Gomez said.