Space is tight at Lunch Break, the Red Bank soup kitchen.
Because of soaring demand for hot meals and canned goods, the need for pantry space has soared, too. Volunteers handling administrative duties share dining tables with clients who come for the meals. Every Saturday, bundles of clothing stored in the basement of the 25-year-old facility named for co-founder Norma Todd must be carted upstairs, out through a parking lot and back into the ground-floor dining room for distribution to clients in need. When winter approaches, executive director Gwen Love has to clear out of her cramped office so clients can get flu shots in private.
The space shortage is more than just an inconvenience. It impinges on Lunch Break’s mission, says Love: to deliver services to those in need with a measure of dignity and respect.
So the recent donation of two houses adjoining Lunch Break’s home at 121 on Drs. James Parker Boulevard, just as the organization was about to embark on a search for additional space, was something of a “miracle,” says Love.
“Every now and then, it rains down blessings,” she tells redbankgreen.
The houses, at 113 and 115 Parker Boulevard, were sold to Lunch Break for $1 by Justin and Victoria Gmelich of Rumson in early June. The couple, who could not be reached for comment, repurchased the two properties, which they had previously owned, for $200,000 in April, according to Monmouth County property records.
The borough has the properties assessed at $269,300 and $275,600, respectively.
“Our board of directors had been discussing the need for expansion, and was just about to put together a search committee to find properties in town,” Love said, when she had a chance encounter with the Gmelichs’ property manager, who told her the couple was probably going to sell the houses, then rented out to tenants.
That led to a conversation with the couple that ended with the donation. It turned out the Gmelichs had been at Lunch Break’s 2010 gala, at which the need for space was publicly discussed, Love said.
Now, the pressure is on Lunch Break to plan, and win borough approval for, the conversion of the homes to charitable use, Love said. If that doesn’t happen by November, she said, the nonprofit will get stuck with a property tax bill it cannot carry.
The idea now being developed with the help of volunteer architects and other professionals is to devote one property to use as a full-time clothing boutique, and to use the other one “essentially as an office” for contacts between clients and social services providers.
Now, she said, clients have to “stand in line outside and pile in” on Saturdays for clothing, and something as simple as a free blood-pressure screening prompts a scramble for space.
Having separate spaces for those services “really would be more in line with our mission to treat people with dignity and respect,” Love said. “You want the services to be provided in a respectful, conscientious manner.”
The demand, of course, is being driven by economic conditions. Visits to Lunch Break’s food pantry are up almost seven-fold since 2008, and the demand for clothing has risen comparably, Love said.
“You’ve got people coming in who have worked all their lives and have never had to access a service like this,” she said. “You’ve got people who are working and feeling the pinch.”
So the additional space “It’s a blessing,” said Love. “It doesn’t get any better than that. It’s right next door.”
Lunch Break will hold its annual fundraising gala on October 14 at the Two River Theater, with live entertainment and cuisine by Lunch Break kitchen mainstay Branches Catering of West Long Branch. Tickets are $125 per.