by Elizabeth Parker
MONTPELIER — Each weekday 60 to 100 people attend a community lunch sponsored by one of five Montpelier congregations. For many of the churches, this tradition stretches back 25 years. Charlotte Gibson of Christ Church started the soup kitchen there by making lentil soup each week. It was served with bread and butter. Eleven people would attend and share in setting up the lunch.
Over time the lunches have grown into more substantial fare and are staffed by a loyal group of volunteers. Over the course of the year, many organizations send volunteers: National Life, Ben and Jerry’s, Montpelier Elementary and High School, Camp Agape and Youth Build from Barre. Also, partnerships are forming. This year Trinity Methodist and Just Basics VT, Inc. had a pilot project at the Thursday lunches in which samples of various vegetable side dishes and main courses were available, and recipes and ingredients were available to take home.
Each church has a lunch coordinator. Most notable for her service is Phyllis Rowell, who has been coordinating the Tuesday lunch at Bethany Church United Church of Christ for 18 years. Phyllis will be stepping down from her role in December. In July, the Bethany lunch site was closed for the month. The community felt what the loss of that weekly meal would mean. A new coordinator or coordinating team has yet to emerge. At the other end of the spectrum is the Monday lunch at the Unitarian Church of Montpelier. Formerly run by Washington County Mental Health, funding for this training program was squeezed over the last few years until a decision was made to close the program. This would have left no community lunch on Monday. Fortunately, in July, Dave Grundy stepped up and has brought together a dedicated team of dozens of volunteers who host a delicious meal to 100 community members.
For some, the lunches are about the food, but for many, the lunches are about the community. Many are surprised to learn that the lunches are attended by a cross section of the community. For some diners, lunch is their only warm meal that day. Disabled members of the community attend with their caregivers. During school vacations, children come with their parents. There are also 20-somethings who work entry level jobs, professionals who get together with friends to visit, retired professionals who enjoy the social aspect of the meal, people visiting Montpelier, and members of each congregation. Those without means eat for free. Those who can, give a donation. Without a doubt, the community lunches are diverse. It is a place where people know your name and everyone is welcome!
What does it take to put on a lunch for 100 people each week? At St. Augustine’s, not only do they cook a delicious lunch, but they have a long tradition of honoring each diner by serving them at the table. There are the people who purchase the ingredients or pick up donated food. There are those who cook, those who set up tables and, most humble, the dishwashers. Imagine dishes for close to 500 people! Each church has fund-raising efforts to supplement the generous donations of local restaurants, farmers and businesses. While some serve soup, others serve a main course and salad. And it is done 52 weeks a year! The numbers add up.
One of the discussions that is starting to emerge is, how can the bounty of the late summer/early fall be put for use during the winter? If you have ideas, become involved.
There are opportunities to volunteer in countless ways: from picking up donations, prepping food once a month or week, donating food, to writing a check. Last Sunday I found myself at the Unitarian Church with my daughter slicing and frying up 27 pounds of donated eggplant for eggplant parmesan — five hours of eggplant. I found myself simply laughing at the absurdity of the quantity. The really funny thing is that once you get involved, there is the realization that what you get from participating in this wonderful community effort is priceless. There will be laughter and you will find the heart of Montpelier’s community.
Elizabeth Parker is a writer who is passionate about local food systems and savoring the exceptional food those systems produce.