Rewind to 2011. Morristown’s Community Soup Kitchen and Outreach Center, the surest of sure things for the downtrodden, was in panic mode.
“We were going through the 10 stages of grief,” according to staffer Julie Hess.
Morristown officials had started enforcing state health codes that banned volunteers from bringing foods they prepared at home. The Soup Kitchen despaired.
Where would it find $150,000 a year to replace the donated food? And how would it replace the spurned volunteers whose generosity had fueled the lunchtime operation every day without fail for nearly three decades?
Enter Alan Weinstein.
“The exact person we needed walked in at the exact moment we needed him,” said Terry Connolly, executive director of the soup kitchen.
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KITCHEN TO KITCHEN
Fast forward to Thursday. First Lady Mary Pat Christie picked up the story:
“So, in steps Alan, who ran the Park Savoy for almost 30 years, and started this thing called Kitchen to Kitchen and really has saved the soup kitchen.”
Alan had just sold his Florham Park restaurant when he heard of the soup kitchen’s distress. He made some phone calls. Now, more than 40 area dining establishments supply more than 60 percent of the soup kitchen’s food needs. The food is rounded up in a Toyota minivan that three kids won for the soup kitchen in an online contest.
The First Lady came to the soup kitchen at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer to honor Alan–by coincidence, her neighbor in Mendham and a relative by marriage to the First Couple of Delaware–with an NJ Heroes Award.
“It really is an amazing story,” said Mary Pat Christie, who travels the state spotlighting good deeds by citizens. This was her sixth stop of the year.
After visiting the kitchen area to dice a few vegetables as video cameras rolled–”my husband used to do this before he worked so hard,” she said with a big grin –the First Lady presented her neighbor with a pin, a gift basket, and a check for $7,500–which Alan promptly handed to the soup kitchen.
He cited a passage from the Haggadah , the Jewish story of the exodus from Egypt: “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”
“Now it’s clear, 2,000 years later, on the richest country on earth, in one of wealthiest communities in that country, we still have hunger. And it is really the Community Soup Kitchen that has taken the responsibility to make sure that all who are hungry can come and eat,” said Alan, who raises egg-laying hens as a hobby.
He said he was inspired by the soup kitchen’s example.
“It doesn’t differentiate between race or creed or gender or even citizenship. The Community Soup Kitchen feeds all. And it feeds them seven days a week, 365 days a year, over 10,000 consecutive days and still counting. And it welcomes them all with dignity, warmth and respect. This is the reason I am most proud to be associated with the Community Soup Kitchen,” said the retired restaurateur.
‘MORE WILL BE THROWN INTO POVERTY’
The soup kitchen has been averaging 235 clients a day, a number that’s sure to rise in 2014 when a second round of cuts hits the federal food stamp program, Terri Connolly said.
“More people will be thrown into poverty,” she predicted.
About 20 percent of the soup kitchen’s clients are homeless. The rest are working poor and elderly individuals, Terri said.
When the town’s enforcement kicked in back in 2011, many friends of the soup kitchen–including MorristownGreen.com columnist Ray (Jerry) Friant--implored legislators for help but were told that federal regulations were meant to ensure public safety.
Asked on Thursday if soup kitchens should get special exemptions to encourage volunteer help, the First Lady said she had no opinion.
“I understand it’s an old law,” she said.
Mayor Tim Dougherty, whose health department initiated the enforcement, declined to critique that move, saying he wanted to focus on Alan’s award.
“How can you not honor somebody for the contribution of helping the needy?” said the Mayor, describing the soup kitchen as a huge community asset that feeds not only the homeless, “but people hurting from the downturn of the economy.”
KEEPING THE VOLUNTEERS
Staff members also worked hard to convince volunteers to stay, helping serve meals and preparing baked goods at home, which still is allowed by regulators.
Fortunately, Terry said, most of the volunteers have stuck around.
And the organization has emerged stronger for the experience, said Julie Hess, the soup kitchen’s community educator.
The kitchen has passed two health inspections, and kitchen help now is better trained and more sensitive to food health issues pertaining to clients who are pregnant, or who have AIDS, Julie said.
An amazing story, certainly. But Alan Weinstein’s contribution is typical of heroes across the Garden State, according to Mary Pat Christie.
“His life mission after retirement is helping people.”