EDITOR’S NOTE: On October 21, Toni’s Kitchen celebrated 35 years of tending our community with a fundraising gala at the Women’s Club of Upper Montclair. CBS News Senior National Correspondent, Jim Axelrod, a resident of Montclair, delivered the keynote address. The text of his address is below. Toni’s Kitchen thanks Jim Axelrod for his outstanding contributions to the event and to Toni’s Kitchen.
So a few weeks ago – I got stuck in an awful traffic jam at a highly inconvenient time: one of those Route-3-turns-into-a-parking-lot situations that we all just love to encounter on our way into Manhattan.
It was during the week after the hideous shooting in Las Vegas – and I had a piece on our morning newscast – CBS This Morning… about how some internet trolls were using the tragedy to stir up trouble.
My piece was set to hit at 7:45 a.m.
I did what I always do: I left my home in Montclair at six for what’s usually a 45-minute trip. That would’ve given me an hour’s cushion to take care of any loose ends that needed tying.
So all was going well as we headed down route 3 toward the Lincoln tunnel – we were just past Giants Stadium – and approaching that junction where Route 3 turns into 495 – you know that spot, right? — there’s a Best Buy and BP gas station on the left – a weirdly named restaurant – Mamajuana I think – and a Hilton Garden Inn on the right –
Well right about there – traffic had come to a complete and total standstill –
We sat for a couple of minutes – waiting for the jam to clear and to start moving again.
I looked at my watch – it was now 6:30 a.m. I still had a little more than an hour, which at that point I was thinking would still be no problem.
Then I asked the driver to turn on the radio.
“Trouble getting to the Lincoln tunnel – still trying to clear that overturned truck as you approach the helix…up to a 90 minute delay”
Now – one of the golden rules of the TV news business – I should say – one of managements’ golden rules: don’t miss your live shot. In other words, “Leave whenever you have to leave… it’s up to you… but if you want to stay employed – don’t miss your live shot.”
So I’ve got two kids in college, a mortgage, andI like my job. i said to the driver, “Um…I got big problems – I don’t have an hour and a half. We got to figure something out.”
And this lovely man — Abdul Diallo – a 38 year old immigrant from Guinea …West Africa…the kindest human being this side of mother Theresa…turned around and met my unfolding freak-out with complete calm and equanimity and serenely assured me: “Don’t worry sir – I’ve got this.”
Next thing I know, he hops a barrier, works his way over to the far shoulder, gets to an off-ramp, up and around over Route 3 … shoots through a strip mall parking lot and begins snaking us through thru a bunch of side-streets in Weehawken and North Bergen.
I’ve been commuting in and out of New York City for nearly 20 years – I thought I knew a few things about shortcuts. But Mr. Diallo’s working knowledge of neighborhoods I’m still not sure actually exist left me absolutely awestruck.
21 minutes after I heard the guy on the radio tell me I was an hour and a half away just from getting to the tunnel, I was standing in front of the CBS Broadcasting Center in midtown Manhattan hoping I had enough cash on me to give Mr. Diallo the tip he deserved.
Why am I telling you this story?
What could this possibly have to do with Toni’s Kitchen?
Just about everything.
In fact — I can’t think of a better way to frame what we are marking, celebrating, and honoring tonight.
Look — I think it’s a fair statement – no matter what your politics are – that things feel a little unmoored in our world these days. Something feels broken in our national civic life: we are polarized and fraying and the ground often feels like it’s shaking. The political dialogue in our country feels like it’s been hijacked by voices on the extremes when so many of us actually dwell somewhere closer to either side of the center.
Many of the familiar routes we have all traveled for years to address society’s issues suddenly seem to be blocked. Kind of like traveling safely along Route 3 at 6 in the morning for a 7:45 live shot for 20 years without a problem – until bam! – you hit historic traffic – and suddenly you’re not going anywhere.
Tonight, as we gather to mark, honor, and celebrate Toni’s Kitchen’s 35th anniversary – we are marking, honoring, and celebrating an organization that every day reminds us where the answers are.
Even if our national civic life feels a bit broken — it is our local organizations dedicated to identifying and addressing our most pressing issues that remain the dependable and smoothly functioning cornerstones of our communities – you know – organizations like “Toni’s Kitchen.”
Mr. Diallo taught me a wonderful little lesson two and a half weeks ago – when the well-traveled roads are clogged – when the normal pathways of problem-solving are impassable – – hit the neighborhoods. The answer is always in our backyards.
Toni’s Kitchen has been teaching and re-teaching us a vitally important lesson for 35 years now: want to solve big problems in our society???
It’s where the hope is – in our own backyards.
For the last 35 years – Toni’s Kitchen has been a bright and shining example to every single member of our community as you tended to our backyard.
More years ago than I care to admit I was standing in line on my college campus waiting to file into the football stadium for my graduation ceremony.
An acquaintance of mine walked up to me – and handed me a piece of paper – some parting advice I suppose.
I unfolded it.
It read: “We must love one another or die — W.H. Auden.”
It’s funny – he wasn’t really a close friend – in fact, that might have been the last time I actually saw the guy – but that thought has really stuck with me. It’s become a guiding principle for the way I always hope to live my life – my own little mission statement.
I remember quoting it at my surprise 40th birthday party – I had nothing prepared to say — but I had that ingrained:
“We must love one another or die.”
A couple of weeks ago – pulling together my remarks for tonight — I pulled up the entire poem the quote is taken from. It’s called “September 1, 1939.” and I saw something astonishing.
I’ve been carrying around that phrase: “We must love one another or die” – for the last 32 years –
But I had never actually read the entire poem until a few weeks ago —
You know what the lines leading up to it say?
“There is no such thing as the state — and no one exists alone. Hunger allows no choice to the citizen or the police. We must love one another or die.” Blew me away.
It turns out — the work Toni’s Kitchen has been doing for the last 35 years – hasn’t just been making our community better, stronger, and more just. Your work has been positively – and literally – poetic.
I’m like so many people when it comes to hunger. We know it exists – and feel enormous sympathy when we see people suffering from it – but confronting it has always seemed to be someone else’s problem.
Look — I get to make a little more intimate acquaintance with hunger than most — just from my work.
And every now and again.. I’ll find myself in a place like Athens County, Ohio – doing a story on a guy like Steve Liss.
Steve’s a wonderful fellow and quite an accomplished photographer: he had 43 magazine covers when he became consumed with documenting hunger and the 50-million Americans who live in poverty. My interview with him was the first time I really wrapped my arms around that number: 1 in 6 Americans live in poverty.
In Athens County, Ohio – where i met up with him — it was even worse: 1 in 4.
His project was called “In our own backyard” – his idea was simple: you can’t fix what you can’t see.
And so he traveled to places where food insecurity was rampant – and took pictures. Incredibly moving portraits of people who just didn’t have enough to eat – to make sure we could see it!!
I’m not particularly proud of this… but moved as I was by Steve’s work … it wasn’t “my backyard.” – and so like I did with so many stories i cover – I came home, told Stina about it, and moved along to the next thing.
You know what we are marking, celebrating, and honoring tonight?
You folks – the people behind “Toni’s Kitchen” — who decided 35 years ago – not to move along to the next thing. But to address the fact that hunger is also in our backyard – here – in this community — knit into the same fabric that also contains such affluence and comfort. For you hunger was – and is — the next thing. It’s been your past thing. Your present thing. And it will be your future thing.
Hunger has never been invisible to you.
And tonight, I want to mark that as we celebrate some muscular growth in Toni’s fight against hunger –
Ten years ago – Toni’s kitchen had $37,150 in revenue. This year that figure is projected to be $719,000.
In 2008 – Toni’s kitchen had 136 volunteers.
This year — 11 hundred.
How’s this for robust expansion: 35 years ago, Toni’s Kitchen provided 7000 meals to people who needed them. Today, due to hard work, vision, and a relentless – audacious — drive to prevent food insecurity among low-income populations… this year Toni’s kitchen expects to provide a hundred thousand meals to those who need them.
35 years after Toni’s Kitchen was founded after a Lenten program at St. Luke’s challenged people to examine the choices they were making about food – and reminding them making those choices was a privilege many others simply did not have…
35 years after that program sparked a commitment to provide food for those in need…
35 years after Antoinette “Toni” Green – “spirit-filled and amazing” — the kind, generous, inventive cook for the day care center at St. Luke’s – jumped in to establish what they all thought would be a short-term emergency feeding program… giving you not just a mission but a name..
35 years after a group of people stared down the fear and uncertainty in welcoming unknown numbers of strangers for unknown amounts of food – here you are!!
35 years into confronting the endless complexities of meeting the most basic of needs — giving people something to eat – and along the way adding blood pressure screenings…dental care… mental health counseling… exercise sessions… food stamp registration – supplying coats… clothing… toiletries…
Good Lord you make the world a better place!
And you do it all with dignity.
And don’t ever underestimate the value that brings to the entire process.
On my trip to Athens County, Ohio, I met a woman in her 30’s named Shirley Forrider. She lived in rickety trailer surviving on a monthly welfare check of $450 and $500 in food stamps.
I asked Shirley what was it was like to have Steve Liss taking pictures of her: you know what she said? “It’s been wonderful/he’s treated me like a human being.”
Steve Liss provided some dignity for Shirley amid poverty’s grinding despair…
That’s something that’s been a guiding principle of Toni’s for 35 years now. It’s in the DNA of this organization.
From the very beginning, the people running Toni’s Kitchen wanted to avoid anyone having to stand in line and wait for food.
From the outset – this organization wanted to treat those who came for food as guests –
From the start they were invited to sit and be served on the church’s dishes –
Remember Kevin Davis the church sexton at the time – running the dishwasher just to make sure there would always be clean plates for the people being served – you weren’t going to do paper.
Always – the mission of Toni’s Kitchen has involved a highly developed awareness of the sometimes crushing blow to people’s psyches to find themselves in the position where they needed to rely on the goodwill of others for their food.
Always – Toni’s Kitchen has been guided by a goal wrapped in empathy and compassion – that is to provide “quality food to nourish their bodies – and a peaceful atmosphere to nourish their souls”
Always – in your diligent efforts to remove shame from the process – you’ve taught that fundamental lesson we try to be mindful of in my house: that “accident of birth” is the single biggest determinant of where one finds him or herself in life –
And always — you have known that if you “accidentally” ended up in good circumstances then you have an obligation to those who did not –
35 years of restoring dignity and reducing shame.
35 years of tending to our backyard.
35 years of repairing the world.
35 years ago… Antoinette Green — Toni — brought up in Harlem – an avid reader who knew her poets and her playwrights – who had a “most attuned sense of people and a deep well of compassion” — started expanding the number of people she cooked for in the church kitchen.
Not many people knew that she was ill at the time.. that she had a shunt in her shoulder that she kept hidden under her apron – and headed to the hospital a couple of times a week for dialysis. But she wasn’t about to let that stop her from tending to needy people in her backyard.
Tonight – 35 years later – we stop to mark, honor, and celebrate this remarkable organization and remarkable group of people who haven’t let a single day go by since — without continuing to address this urgent and most basic need in our community.
Just like Mr. Diallo a couple of weeks back did for a panicking reporter – you folks … and all of those who’ve given so selflessly to create and sustain Toni’s Kitchen – have spent 35 years turning to so many people in need and saying, with empathy, compassion, and grace: “Don’t worry — we got this.”
And just like I was feeling toward Mr. Diallo — a couple weeks back – an entire community tonight is filled with a deep and enduring gratitude that, yes, all of you – the people of Toni’s Kitchen — most certainly do.