MAGNOLIA — Standing in line to receive food boxes with her kids and other families during the COVID-19 pandemic gave Jennifer Antonik a new perspective.
It wasn’t just food she and her family were receiving from the cafeteria staff at a local school — it was love and a nice reminder that people still care, even during uncertain times.
It also gave Mrs. Antonik, a budding author of children’s books, the idea and inspiration for her latest work, “Boxes of Love.”
“The nutrition staff even began writing sayings or drawing hearts or emojis on the (food) boxes,” Mrs. Antonik said. “It was just a loving feeling every time we picked up boxes, and our kids felt that way, too. It was a gentle reminder that everything will work out somehow, and I’m excited that we have the chance to help share this story.”
A former journalist and current public relations coordinator for the Delaware Farm Bureau, Mrs. Antonik noted that during the COVID-19 pandemic over the last year, school lunch heroes, farmers and other groups have worked tirelessly to provide healthy meals to students all over the country, even after schools were shuttered.
Their work was the inspiration behind Mrs. Antonik’s new bilingual children’s book, which tells a familiar tale with a heartwarming twist and a diverse cast of characters.
Coincidentally, School Lunch Hero Day is this Friday.
“‘Boxes of Love’ is a story from the heart,” Mrs. Antonik said. “My family was not immune to the consequences of the pandemic. Like many, many other families, we soon found ourselves in the meal-pickup line at our local school.
“Businesses like My Sister’s Fault and Mama Maria’s in Milford even began offering meals, while people scrambled to figure out how we could all respond to this ‘new normal.’ In the pickup line, we came from all walks of life, but one thing was always the same between us — we were all there for the kids. I tried to express that and gratitude for our local school lunch heroes with this book.”
To help bring her story to a broader audience, advocate and Milford School District Board of Education Vice President Rony Baltazar-Lopez translated “Boxes of Love” into Spanish. He currently works at the Delaware Department of Justice and is a part-time graduate student in the Joseph R. Biden Jr. School of Public Policy & Administration at the University of Delaware.
“What (school nutrition staff) provide is of vital importance, especially for our minority families. We do not heighten our cafeteria workers the way we should, and this book does that,” Mr. Baltazar-Lopez said. “I’ve never translated a book before, and this fell in line with everything else I’ve done before.
“Everything in this book is like what the kids experience with the meal boxes. I’m just really appreciative of the opportunity to be involved.”
The Spanish translations appear on the same pages as the English words do, offering a complete reading experience for English-speaking and English-learning families alike.
Mrs. Antonik said that including Spanish in her book was important to her because much of what the school nutrition staff members do is about inclusion.
“Having a native speaker like Rony was really the only way to go to make sure our story had an authentic feel for everyone reading the book,” said Mrs. Antonik. “Where we live in central Delaware, there are many families with English-speaking children but parents who only know Spanish.
“The children end up translating for their parents, and I wanted to eliminate that barrier if I could, at least this once. It takes a village. I’m so grateful for Rony for his time and passion on this project.”
“Boxes of Love” explores questions and feelings many children had at the beginning of the pandemic, such as sadness and confusion.
Like Mrs. Antonik’s family experienced, the main character found a slice of happiness when he saw a week’s worth of food inside his own box of love from the school nutrition staff. But he had to ask the question, “How is this possible?”
After a mission of discovery leads him to several local farms, the answer is not what he expects.
“Love always wins. Love is always the answer,” Mrs. Antonik said. “Explaining a global pandemic to our younger children was especially hard at the beginning. But explaining why we could bring home boxes of meals for each child was easy — they are loved. It’s so easy to lose sight of that.”
And that is how Mrs. Antonik’s “Boxes of Love” came to be.
“We started calling them ‘Boxes of Love’ in our house for a few reasons. For one, I discovered a new perspective on the process that goes on behind the scenes for every meal distribution,” she said, referencing her role at the Delaware Farm Bureau. “Plus, a local farmer, 302Aquaponics (in Dover), contributed salads for a lot of the boxes, which was always nice to see.
“Our daughter loves salads, and this gave us a chance to really dive into the conversation of where food comes from, whether it’s a local farmer or another group that wants our kids to be healthy.”
By the end of this week, “Boxes of Love” will be in or headed to at least six school districts in the state, with more in the works.
“Boxes of Love” is Mrs. Antonik’s fifth children’s book. Her first, “The Music Man: Our Rootin’, Tootin’ Hero” was written late last year and earned first place in the children’s nonfiction category of the Delaware Press Association’s 2021 Communications Contest.
“I self-published my first book late last year after my grandfather passed away,” she said. “Besides being a veteran and amazing father and grandfather, he was a regular volunteer at the (Milford) High School, active in the community and even founded the Milford Community Band 30 years ago.
“I’ve always felt like his story was too big to keep tucked away. Writing a children’s book about him and his journey helped our whole family cope with losing him, and it helped me dip my toes into the world of children’s books.”
Mrs. Antonik enjoys sharing her life experiences, so what better way to do that than to write books about them?
“When it comes to writing, whether it’s for children or adults, my greatest satisfaction has always been learning about something and then sharing that information I’ve been gifted in a way that is inspiring and educational,” she said. “I say ‘gifted’ because knowledge is a gift that shouldn’t be taken for granted.
“With ‘Boxes of Love,’ I feel amazing knowing that I’ve made some very special people feel loved and inspired to continue their important work and that young readers will not only learn something new, but they’ll maybe be inspired, also.”
It’s also worthwhile that Mrs. Antonik’s three children enjoy her books and her writing.
“They are excited, especially our 6-year-old,” she said. “Our older kids think it’s really cool that mom is an author. They’ve started drawing or writing more, which is pretty exciting to watch. Sometimes, they even come up with a new book or marketing ideas to brainstorm.
“Our youngest daughter tells everyone about Mommy’s books. She loves knowing she can share our family stories with the world. When my first book arrived in the mail, she nearly ripped it out of my hands and ran through the house, so she could read it on the couch. The whole family has really been so supportive of this venture.”
To find out more about Mrs. Antonik’s book-publishing ventures, visit here.