by Peggy Wright
MORRISTOWN — A culinary competitor was in town Thursday night as Morris County Sheriff James M. Gannon and state Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco cooked and cleaned up after a dinner of pork roast served to needy guests of Bethel AME Church’s Table of Hope community soup kitchen.
“They came and did this and that’s awesome in itself,” said church trustee Michael McCloe.
Gannon and Bucco — friends since their childhoods in Boonton — bought 40 pounds of pork loin, 20 pounds of potatoes, salad fixings, biscuits, mixed vegetables and a cake. They spent Thursday afternoon wearing aprons in the kitchen of the church’s Fellowship Hall, preparing a meal for guests who started arriving around 5:30 p.m.
“We wanted to help Table of Hope and we also wanted to bring to light the problem Morris County has with its homelessness problem,” Bucco said. “Just because we’re one of the most affluent counties doesn’t mean we don’t have a problem.”
A Point-In-Time study conducted in January of the county’s homeless population identified 398 people without permanent homes, a 5 percent increase over 2017, Gannon said. He said Thursday, the national Day of Prayer in America, was a perfect occasion to prepare and meet guests who are struggling financially and rely on the dinners Table of Hope serves Mondays through Fridays.
“The issue is real,” Gannon said. “These are awesome people. Being here is good for the soul.”
Gannon’s girlfriend, Lisa Santoro, and Bucco’s wife, Amy Bucco, helped with the shopping, cooking and cleanup. Health care professionals from Bayada home health care agency in Randolph pitched in to serve guests that included regular diners like John Oakley, 80, of Morristown.
“It doesn’t matter what they cook,” Oakley said. “Whatever I get, I get.”
Both Gannon, now a member of Table of Hope’s Board of Trustees, and Bucco already were loyal volunteers for the non-profit kitchen. Gannon and Santoro already help serve and clean monthly at the community kitchen and Bucco has donated food and clothing for guests to select from racks and tables.
Frances, 61, appeared for dinner with a friend, Joe. Frances said she was living in her car last year, washing in bathrooms at McDonald’s and Walmart stores, before she was noticed by social service workers and given a room in a shelter. She said she works as a caregiver and doesn’t always make it back to the shelter in time for dinner.
“Sometimes you have family and friends who are willing to help you but they’re barely making it themselves,” Frances said. “I wasn’t working last year so I couldn’t do that to them, I couldn’t let them have me stay without helping with the bills.”
Bucco and Gannon said they are challenging other leaders in Morris County to spend an evening as “celebrity chefs.”
“The reality is meat costs money,” Gannon said. “But we want to give a spectacular meal here like you’d have at home. Next time let’s do steaks.”
Some of the guests were men living on Social Security/Disability payments, who said the monthly income doesn’t always stretch to include a daily meal. Bucco and Gannon chatted with guests who wanted company, talking sports and reminiscing with one woman they knew from growing up in Boonton.
“This is a place that’s about much more than food and nutrition,” Gannon said. “It’s a chance to demonstrate to people that other people care about them. Anyone of us could be in a financial pickle. This is a place where anyone can come in, no questions asked.”
The Morris County Sheriff’s CrimeStoppers program last year came to the financial rescue of Table of Hope, founded under the Board of Spring Street Development Corp. The kitchen ran into difficulties with extra bills, like trash collection, and had to spring for a new freezer.
Table of Hope was started after Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011 flooded the church’s Fellowship Hall with four feet of water and wrecked the piano, organ and walls. The church’s flood insurance had lapsed prior to Rev. Sidney Williams joining the church as its pastor.
Congregants raised about $200,000 for repairs, and other donations and a community block grant came in but the largest contribution was from Normandy Real Estate Partners, which paid to renovate the hall and install a commercial kitchen. The congregation decided to pay back the community by opening Table of Hope, which served its first meals in 2013.
Mike Williams, the usual chef at Table of Hope, said he didn’t mind sharing the kitchen with Gannon and Bucco.
“I love it. It’s a pleasure to have them here,” Williams said.
Staff Writer Peggy Wright