The Montclair Times Guest Editorial: Declaring Independence, by Anne Mernin

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This is the season of celebrating independence, launching our freshly minted graduates into the world and sending “big kids” off to sleep-away camp. And, of course, we celebrate the brave spirit of independence that brought us this nation.

At Toni’s Kitchen, we have given a good deal of thought to independence — what it means and how it is sustained. Most guests of our soup kitchen have lost some degree of independence. Their financial, physical or mental health has somehow been compromised.

Our growing community includes the working poor supplementing insufficient incomes and senior citizens whose modest nest eggs don’t cover rising rents. Retired factory workers, musicians, sanitation workers and bus drivers all pass through our doors, some struggling with chronic health conditions, some hampered by illiteracy or never-identified learning disabilities. Others struggle with emotional disabilities or substance abuse.

Nourishing food, served in an atmosphere of warm respect, opens doors to addressing issues that jeopardize independence. At Toni’s Kitchen, we work with community partners such as the Urban Healthcare Initiative Program, the Mental Health Association of Essex County, Succeed2gether, Mountainside Hospital and others to identify and address risks to independent living. Guests who come for a meal find a full on-site medical clinic, mental health counselors, preventive case management, access to food stamps and educational programs. Those who are overwhelmed find a path forward.

For much of our history, Toni’s Kitchen served meals to meet the immediate need to address hunger. But in the spirit of independence, our mission has grown. We now understand the power of food and its ability to create community and trust. And, in trust, doors open to address underlying issues.

Everyone who comes through our doors has hard work ahead of them. However, thanks to the committed community we live in — providing volunteers, donors and skilled partners — the work of regaining independence is feasible. It begins with a nourishing meal and tangible respect; and it slowly transforms to self-directed work toward clear goals.

Summer days are some of the busiest at Toni’s Kitchen. We ask that you think of us. Bring us produce from your garden, volunteer in our kitchen, make a financial contribution.

Thank you for being the generous, resourceful town you are. Moving those most in need toward independence is the very definition of community and the spirit of this nation writ small.

Anne Mernin is director of outreach for Toni’s Kitchen, in St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.