America Strong: Food pantries lead charge against food insecurity during COVID pandemic

MONTCLAIR, New Jersey (WABC) -- As millions of jobs vanished during the coronavirus pandemic, the food insecurity crisis in America deepened.

Food pantries that provided relief were stretched to the limit, and with surging demand, many facilities lost volunteers, faced shortages, and some were forced to close their doors.

Still, soup kitchens and food banks were able to provide a life-saving service to their communities in the midst of a crisis.

This report is a part of "America Strong," an Eyewitness News and ABC News series highlighting stories of strength and resiliency across the nation.

As business closed and millions lost their jobs, many had to answer the question of how they would feed their families.

Toni's Kitchen of St. Luke's Church in Montclair, New Jersey, became a lifeline in the community for those who would navigate a soup kitchen for the first time.

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Toni's Kitchen in Montclair, New Jersey has been serving food to those in need for some 28 years. Since schools in Montclair, and neighboring Bloomfield, were forced to close due t


"We've definitely had new guests," Executive Director Anne Mernin said. "I have walked out here and seen friends of mine in line. People who never expected to ever be out of (work) have had have been really hard hit.

The soup kitchen also fell on hard times during the pandemic.

"When the pandemic hit, really all of our distribution mechanism shut down overnight," she said.

Because of COVID restrictions, supply concerns, and increased demand, Toni's Kitchen got creative and asked for help from of the community, which answered the call.

"We were outside, we would set up tables to receive in food donations to sort food, and people came and did pickups for us at markets," Mernin said. "Which was tremendous."

The donations were so massive that their dining room turned into a warehouse, and Toni's Kitchen even started delivering meals to those who were homebound.

"People stepped in wherever there were gaps," Rev. John Mennell said. "The community responded with so much generosity."

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According to a new report from the USDA, food insecurity increased significantly during the pandemic, widening by 10% among Black and Hispanic households.

Despite the supply chain shortages, Feeding America -- one of the largest organizations that joins networks of food banks and partner agencies in the U.S. -- distributed more than six billion meals in 2020, an increase of 44% over 2019.

"So one of the things that we really try to help everyone understand is how brave, courageous, and resilient the local food banks and their local food pantries have been through this pandemic," Feeding America COO Katie Fitzgerald said.

But as the pandemic rages on, the fight against food insecurity continues -- and that's where Toni's Kitchen comes in.

"So in this year and a half or so, many things have been shut down to us," Rev. Mennell said. "So many things have been closed off. This has been something that's been open and thriving and is alive, and will continue to be for as long as it's needed."

"America Strong" is a multiplatform reporting series showcasing the strength and resilience of the nation. As Americans continue to confront extraordinary challenges brought on by the pandemic and extreme weather events, ABC News and Eyewitness News will profile neighbors helping community members in need and individuals finding new strength from within.



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