Bloomfield College has always been grateful for its positive town and gown relationships. Its partnership with close by Toni’s Kitchen in Montclair, is one such relationship that supports its students on a weekly, sometimes, daily basis. Based out of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, this food support ministry is providing hot meals, bagged meals and groceries that have become essential to students.
“Students cannot learn if they are hungry,” said Marcheta P. Evans, president of Bloomfield College. “This is why the College’s relationship with Toni’s Kitchen is so important to our students, many of them hit hard by the pandemic, who are often working two or three part-time jobs while studying for their degrees. The expense of college attendance alone eats up their finances, and the reports that they sometimes miss meals as a way to balance their budgets is highly concerning.”
In these past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen an exponential increase in news stories covering the rise in food insecurity across the nation, regionally and locally. A recent survey by Feeding America shows a concerning trend. It found that demand at U.S. food banks is up by an average of 70 percent compared to the prior year, with nearly 40 percent of those individuals using a food bank for the first time.
“At Bloomfield College, we are bearing witness to the increased food insecurity of college students. Every Wednesday this past fall, Toni’s Kitchen provided commuting students with breakfast sandwiches it purchased from the nearby Coffee & Cornbread restaurant, and they plan to start back up later in January,” said Sheila Wooten, Bloomfield College Dean of Student Life and Director of Athletics. “Toni’s Kitchen has also provided groceries during the academic breaks when the College cafeteria is closed, supporting about 30-40 students who were unable to go home. Over Thanksgiving and the winter break, they provided hot meals for these students.”
Toni’s Kitchen has been in existence since 1982 and currently works with 60-some community partners. It is also supported by fundraising and the Community Food Bank of New Jersey. It manages more than 2,000 volunteers and is busy seven days a week.
“This past year, we provided 1.5 million meals overall. Our goal is to get the right type of food to the different populations who are in need in ways that help them, whether it be through groceries, hot meals or prepared foods,” said Toni’s Kitchen Executive Director, Anne Mernin. “Just two miles away at Bloomfield College, we know that many students are struggling with both finances and time. This is why the quick pick-ups of prepared meals they can warm up and the hot breakfast sandwiches are so helpful to them.”
“We have also been able to assist Bloomfield College students with acquiring inexpensive, high quality clothing through our Thrift Store. Oftentimes, people believe that our food and clothing support is only for those in crisis, but we want everyone to visit us before they go into crisis, especially our nearby college students and others who need to have funds available for unexpected expenses,” added Mernin.
Food insecure households are defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as households where “a family sometimes runs out of money to buy food or sometimes runs out of food before it can get more money.” The first known use of the term “food insecure” was in 1977, and in 2014, the USDA divided food insecurity into two categories. Low food security includes reports of reduced quality, variety or desirability in the diet; and very low food security includes reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.
In 2020, the USDA reported that 10.5 percent (13.8 million) of U.S. households were food insecure at some time that year. Of these, 6.6 percent (8.6 million) had low food security and 3.9 percent (5.1 million) had very low food security at some time during 2020. The 2021 annual report on food insecurity showed these numbers were relatively unchanged. Yet, the USDA points to an uptick in federal and charitable resources being responsible for these relatively stable numbers. It reports that about 60 million people (1 in 5 U.S. residents) received charitable food assistance in 2020, an increase of 50 percent from the prior year.