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The joy of feeding neighbors

The Rev. John Mennell of St. Luke's, Montclair shows off the new walk-in refrigerator, part of the $1.2 million renovation of the church's undercroft to expand the ministry of Toni's Kitchen. NINA NICHOLSON PHOTO
Nina Nicholson, Director of Communications
The Rev. John Mennell of St. Luke's, Montclair shows off the new walk-in refrigerator, part of the $1.2 million renovation of the church's undercroft to expand the ministry of Toni's Kitchen. NINA NICHOLSON PHOTO

It was Thursday, July 20, and the Rev. John Mennell, Rector of St. Luke’s, Montclair, was nearly bouncing with glee.

“This feels momentous,” he said, as Toni’s Kitchen, a ministry of St. Luke’s, prepared to welcome people to the first sit-down meal they had been able to offer in the dining room in three and a half years – since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Launched in 1982 as a soup kitchen serving mainly the housing insecure, Toni’s Kitchen had expanded by 2019 to partner with other groups affected by food insecurity such as after-school programs and senior programs, serving 240,000 meals a year.

With the start of the pandemic in March 2020, Toni’s Kitchen could no longer serve meals indoors, and their partners were also forced to pause operations. However, the need was greater than ever, so the ministry pivoted rapidly, building a food pantry, starting home deliveries to seniors, and partnering with schools to provide groceries to families of children in the National School Lunch Program. During this period, the dining room was converted to food storage, along with church offices and conference rooms.

Mennell credits Anne Mernin, Executive Director of Toni's Kitchen, with overcoming the unforeseen challenges.

“Our operation has literally changed monthly, every month for the past three and a half years,” he said. “Anne is amazing at developing processes to make it work.”

Mernin herself points to the creativity of Stacey Cooper, the Director of Operations.

“Stacey was able to ensure all the logistics were flexibly designed to support a rapidly changing ministry,” she said.

By 2022 the number of meals served annually had exploded to 1.7 million, and Toni’s Kitchen began to consider how to better use their space. This led to a capital campaign that raised $1.2 million to renovate St. Luke’s undercroft, adding 5,000 square feet to their operation. Part of the new space is used for food storage and includes a walk-in refrigerator and freezer. The rest is used for Toni’s Closet, a thrift store launched last year, which splits its proceeds between Toni’s Kitchen and St. Luke’s.

With the dining room available once again, Toni’s Kitchen can now resume serving sit-down meals indoors. On the day of its reopening, about 40 people sat at cheerful tables to be served, restaurant style, a hot lunch of pork loin, broccoli, and roasted potatoes, with fruit salad for dessert. Going forward, lunch will be served every Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with dinner on Sunday.

“There will be more people soon,” Mernin said. “The word is just getting around that we’re open again.”

Meanwhile in the church, a companion operation called Toni’s Choice Pantry was underway, overseen by Nancy Xenakis, Guest Support Coordinator for Toni’s Kitchen. Open every Wednesday through Saturday, registered guests may come once a week to select what they need from among the available items. Last year, this ministry served about 1,500 households.

Tables next to the registration desk hold handouts in English and Spanish with information about available programs. Toni’s Choice Pantry also partners with other groups that periodically offer services such as health screenings. On this day, two volunteers were there with information about Medicare.

“I feel so fortunate to be part of a dynamic team dedicated to serving our community to address food insecurity,” Xenakis said.

Toni’s Kitchen and its satellite ministries rely on 2,000 volunteers from all over the community, about 50 of whom are there on any given day.

“It takes a village to do what we do,” said Mernin. “The community has stepped up with support.”

Surveying the dining room filled with people eating, chatting, and laughing, Mennell smiled. “One of most important things we do,” he said, “is build community and connect people.”

Reporter's note: After all the guests had been served, the volunteers announced there were leftovers and invited me to have lunch. I can personally attest that the lunch was excellent – both delicious and filling.

Photo Gallery

All photos by Nina Nicholson.