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Lunch Break marks 38 years of caring for individuals in need of assistance

RED BANK – Lunch Break, a social service organization that provides food, clothing, fellowship, life skills and employment training, is celebrating 38 years of caring for the well-being of hundreds of families and individuals living at or below the poverty line in Monmouth County and beyond.

The organization’s origins date to 1983 as a food pantry organized by Norma Todd and community leaders to alleviate hunger, according to a press release.

Lunch Break has since flourished into a service agency and life skills program to help participants achieve self-sufficiency.

During 2020, Lunch Break saw what its directors called an unprecedented demand for groceries — 111% more food pickups over 2019, according to the press release. The same holds true for Lunch Break’s “grab and go” meals — Continental breakfast and lunch served six days a week — with a 22% increase over 2019.

In 2021, the need for food continues to increase as Lunch Break honors its promise to “never miss a meal,” thanks largely, in part, to the support of generous community members and partners, and dedicated volunteers, according to the press release.

Beginning in March 2020 at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Lunch Break quickly adapted to modified food and grocery services, offering “grab and go” meals and contactless grocery pickups with help from front-line staff and volunteers.

Some programs met remotely through Zoom conferencing. The Life Skills Center conducted virtual coaching sessions and employment and financial tutorials for up to 100 participants a month in 2020, 45 of whom gained employment, according to the press release.

“I always wanted to try working in a hospital and the Life Skills Center made it possible … which is huge because it’s so hard to get into such a high demand job field,” said Wanda, a Life Skills Center participant.

A COVID-19 emergency response Fund was established in 2020 for direct payments to vendors for outstanding utility, cable and car payments, as well as housing payment assistance. During 2020, Lunch Break received a $5,000 COVID-19 response grant from OceanFirst for operations, according to the press release.

“In 38 years, we have survived just about everything from natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy, economic downturns and now, the COVID-19 pandemic,” Executive Director Gwendolyn Love was quoted as saying in the press release.

“This not only shows the passion and commitment of our volunteers and donors for their neighbors, but a giving spirit that is truly from the heart. I am humbled by the love and support we receive every day,” Love said.

Reflecting on 2020’s challenges, Life Skills Program Manager Mary Ann LaSardo found remote conferencing to be a way around some of the obstacles to learning.

“Perhaps the best lesson learned was with our English as a Second Language classes. Prior to the pandemic our classes were held on Monday evenings. We usually had 25-plus students, but we often heard that transportation and day care were problems for some in attending classes. We now do classes via Zoom and we have added a few more students and removed the obstacles,” LaSardo said. “It has been so successful, we will continue during post-pandemic times to offer at least one ESL class via Zoom.”

Among Lunch Break’s accomplishments during 2020 were the following:

• Health and wellness initiatives involving nutritional meal planning and grocery options for preventive health care and accommodations for health-related dietary restrictions;

• Homebound delivery of nutritious meals provided six days a week, 52 weeks a year, including holidays;

• Thanksgiving “grab and go” meals provided in addition to delivering to Lunch Break’s homebound clients;

• Every week, more than 100 hot meals are delivered to displaced individuals in the Pan American Motel;

• Clara’s Closet distributed clothing to more than 3,200 individuals;

• Outreach Clothing Program distributed 7,175 bags of clothing to individuals throughout Monmouth County;

• The Suit Up Program provided 95 individuals with business attire;

• The Backpack Program ensured that 725 children in need had school supplies;

• Lunch Break’s annual holiday program provided gift cards for 850 families;

• Womyn’s Worth – female mentorship program focused on health, nutrition and wellness through virtual discussions, workshops and speakers;

• COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund was established with agency partners for the payment of utilities, car payments, cable bills and rent assistance. To date, Lunch Break has distributed more than $800,000 directly to vendors to help its clients keep these critical services.

“As we celebrate the 38th anniversary of Lunch Break and thank all of those who dedicated so much time and effort over the years, we look forward to 2021 and beyond in which Lunch Break continues to evolve its services to provide a path to self-sufficiency for our clients,” board President Phil Antoon said.

“We have come through some of the darkest times and now, with hope on the horizon, we look forward to some new initiatives, as well as furthering our commitment to support the well-being of our community,” Love added.

For more information or to donate, visit www.lunchbreak.org

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