As many schools hold food drives this time of year, a group of students at Montclair High School are helping the hungry year-round while studying their plight. They are doing so through an unusual new partnership with Toni’s Kitchen, a 30-year-old Montclair institution serving meals to needy residents with the help of 300 regular volunteers.
The 260 students are enrolled in the high school’s Civics and Government Institute (CGI), one of the school’s small learning communities. Each entering CGI class of sophomores selects a real-world issue of global and local importance to explore within CGI’s separate history, literature, and elective classes as well as through community service projects beyond the school walls.
Hunger surfaced as a possible focus for the program after a meeting between Anne Mernin, director of outreach for St. Luke’s Church, which operates the volunteer-run kitchen, and Tom Manos, a teacher and co-program coordinator in CGI. Students embraced the theme.
As Mernin says, “Teenagers can be a powerful resource when they become passionately engaged and are given the opportunity and the encouragement to contribute to their community. The CGI program gives them that opportunity and we are thrilled by the excitement and imagination these students and their teachers are bringing to the kitchen.”
The ways in which Toni’s has galvanized CGI participants can be seen throughout the program’s special study areas called departments. In Environment, students are working at a local community garden to provide fresh produce to the kitchen. The Media department is undertaking an oral history of the kitchen while The National Action department is looking at the upcoming renewal of The Farm Bill and advocating locally and nationally for provisions that will improve food security for the population Toni’s serves. The Arts and Education departments are planning a range of activities including installing a mural in the dining room, instigating and supervising crafts projects and facilitating instruction for guests in practical, work-related skills.
In March, the students' involvement at Toni's will be showcased at a 30th anniversary event, which they are also helping to produce.
This program has the potential to demonstrate just how effective and enriching high-school community collaborations can be.