By John Burton
RED BANK — It isn’t just about food at Lunch Break.
The agency at 121 Drs. James Parker Blvd. is known for its soup kitchen, serving tens of thousands of lunches a year, six days a week, and its food pantry that allows those in need to get groceries. But, the services there go far beyond feeding people.
The 30-year-old agency, which is celebrating its three-decade milestone on Monday, Oct. 21 with a gala at the Navesink Country Club, offers a wide variety of help for people to live life with dignity.
The increasing demand for those services is straining the organization’s existing locations, with its representatives looking at options while raising money to expand and meet the community’s growing needs.
“The end result is we’re running out of space but not hungry people,” said Kate McMahon, Lunch Break’s director of development. “We’re bursting at the seams.”
While the operation uses some off-site locations for storage and offices, it could probably use another two-to-four additional sites to accommodate programs. But, spreading the operation out “would be a logistical nightmare,” she said.
That could also negate one of the important facets of Lunch Break, its “availability and accessibility” to the services it provides to those who need them the most, said Mark Brahney, the newly named board of trustees chairman.
Lunch Break has been addressing an upsurge in demand for its food services since the 2008 recession – which was exacerbated by last year’s Super Storm Sandy – by providing 80,000 hot lunches a year, up from 60,000 two years ago, There has been a 657 percent increase from 2008 to 2012 in food pantry pickups with Lunch Break now providing groceries to 600 families, Brahney said.
This summer, the addition of a gardener’s market allowed clients to have some additional fresh fruit and vegetables, raised and donated by local gardeners.
But that is just part of what Lunch Break does, Brahney and Executive Director Gwendolyn Love noted.
Lunch Break has a clothing program, which has had an increase in collections and distribution of about 1,000 percent since 2008, Brahney said.
The clothing collection, made available to anyone who needs it, also helps stock the agency’s Suited for Success program, which provides appropriate business clothing for those looking for employment. Suited for Success also has worked with Interfaith Neighbors, a community organization and youth program in Asbury Park, giving the graduates clothing for graduations, graduation photos and future interviews, as well bolstering their self-esteem, Love said.
Lunch Break on Wednesdays conducts a children’s cooking class. Called “Look What’s Cooking at Lunch Break,” trained cooks instruct kids, ages 5-12, in the facility’s kitchen on how to prepare healthy meals. Those meals are then served for the following day’s lunch offering.
Lunch Break works with a number of organizations, including the Visiting Nurse Association of Central New Jersey, the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, the Affordable Housing Alliance, Hispanic Affairs and the Red Bank Resource Center, to allow Lunch Break’s clients to access those organizations’ services and information.
A few years ago in a cramped corner, Lunch Break established an Internet café, which now has six available computers. It’s a place where former and current clients help others apply for work online and retrieve information they might need.
Love said she hopes to get more computers in the near future but are “kind of limited with our lack of space,” she said.
Lunch Break will be expanding its existing space shortly by building an addition on adjacent property that was donated to the agency.
Lunch Break representatives hope to have more space to better serve communities. As it stands now, clients have to meet with the site’s social worker in a converted closet. “And that’s not right,” McMahon said.
“We are so much more than a meal,” Brahney stressed.
Lunch Break is a welcoming place where friendship is also on the menu.
“It’s nice to get out of the house and have some place to go,” said Joan, a 69-year-old Red Bank resident. She had found herself “involuntarily retired” by outsourcing and has come to rely on Lunch Break to supplement her groceries. She comes here most days for lunch.
“I never thought I’d be in this situation,” she said with Lunch Break becoming the “primary source of my food.”
For Joan and others, it’s also a source of socialization. “They treat you with respect here,” she said.
Lunch Break is holding its annual gala on Monday, Oct. 21, at the Navesink Country Club in Middletown. The event, which is is sold out, traditionally provides as much as 20 percent of the $900,000 annual operating budget, a budget that has increased by about 300 percent over the last five years, according to Brahney.
More is always needed and welcomed, he said.