The Pierre Toussaint food pantry in Newark boasts something not found in any of the MEND pantries. Operating out of the lower level of St. Benedict’s prep, a 150+ year-old school of nearly 800 students, the pantry has a ready-made workforce of seventh and eighth graders who help with packing and distributing the food.
Sister Linda Klaiss, who has overseen the pantry for the past 28 years, sees the set-up as good for everyone involved. The clients enjoy interacting with the kids, while the students, under Sister Linda’s guidance, get extra practice in being respectful and kind. “I tell the kids to say “Have a nice day,’” said Sister Linda, noting the importance of the word “dignity” in MEND’s full name, Meeting Essential Needs with Dignity. “It’s hard to stand in line to get food,” she noted. “Sometimes clients just need care and they need to be heard. It makes a big difference.”
Students also bring their technological know-how, which has been useful as the pantry has switched to using computers instead of paper to identify clients and create reports. Where Sister Linda “struggles” with the iPads now being used for client intake, the students “just figure it out” and easily train other students, she said.
The pantry serves about 200 households (amounting to 600 to 800 people) a month in distributions that occur every third and fourth Friday (for single people) and every third and fourth Saturday (for families). Students help out with packing bags on Thursdays and distributing on Fridays, while parish member Ambrose Amoakoh oversees the Saturday distributions, along with volunteers from Seton Hall University, Rutgers and other members of the parish. “I have a lot of help from a lot of people,” Sister Linda noted.
While the number of people coming to the pantry has stayed roughly the same over the years, the demographics have shifted. Lately, the number of undocumented Hispanic visitors has grown, probably because they view the church as a safe alternative to getting government benefits, speculated Sister Linda. The pantry is also serving more West African newcomers and a growing number of large families with young children. For these clients, Sister Linda utilizes a grant to purchase baby items such as car seats and diapers. “Pampers have been flying off the shelf,” Sister Linda noted. “There are never enough.”
In addition to the government-provided food it gets through the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, the pantry gets by on donations from MEND and a sister church in Bergen County. Its constellation of helpers includes an 82-year-old woman who contributes $25 a month and the sister of a now-deceased monk who formerly served the parish, who donates $200 a month from Florida. The pantry is also an enthusiastic partner of America’s Grow-A-Row, which sets up a farmer’s market of fresh produce outside the pantry once a month in the summer. “People are so grateful to get fresh produce,” Sister Linda noted.
While Sister Linda has numerous other responsibilities, she sees running the pantry as particularly rewarding because of the bonds it can create. “The pantry is the place where the resources and the people who care can connect to the need,” she said.
Pierre Toussaint Food Pantry
528 Dr. MLK Jr. Blvd.
Newark, NJ 07102
3rd and 4th Friday (singles), 10 am to noon
3rd and 4th Saturday (families), 9 am to noon