When you walk in the door of a community meal site, the buzz of conversation strikes you as much as—or more than—the smell of hot food. Yes, the volunteers serve food to the needy, but many of them are also dedicated to providing opportunities for friendship and fun, regardless of whether you spend the night in a tent or a two-story Colonial home.
At a recent Montpelier Unitarian Church community lunch, one 93-year-old man said, “Last year I saw a fellow eating here who could buy Montpelier, I think. That’s community!” The same man, who wished to remain anonymous, said he had lived in Montpelier all his life, “except in the military,” and had recently sold the house he built in 1961. Although he can afford to buy his food, he regularly eats at the church lunches, for the company.
There is a strong social safety net component behind the community meals. “Between the meals for everyone offered in Barre and Montpelier, you can’t go hungry,” commented Ceara, 28. “There’s three meals a day, and then some.”
But also, she said of the church lunches, “It’s a great place to just conversate.” She explained that she and her boyfriend had previously lived homeless in the area for nearly a year, and she was just resuming the meal circuit after “a stint in jail.” She appreciated the accepting, non-judgmental atmosphere. “At the beginning, I thought the church meals would be served by a bunch of Bible thumpers pushing their religion,” she said. “It’s not like that at all. In fact, when my boyfriend and I wanted to thank the volunteers for the meal afterwards, we would often have to go look for them.”
Some community meals offer restaurant-like amenities, such as live music at the Unitarian Church or table service at St. Augustine’s Church on Barre Street. There, visitors place their orders from the menu taped to the wall, and a volunteer brings them a tray with their order. “People say they like it that way,” said Deb McCormick, who has been volunteering there for over 10 years and now serves as co-cook. The servers even walk among the tables of diners, asking “Would you like something else to eat?” or “What would you like for dessert?” Vegetarian and other options are available at many, perhaps all, of the sites.
At St. Augustine’s, Nancy, 83, said she eats at the church lunches and the Senior Center because she lives alone and likes the socializing. “It helps keep the dementia away,”
she said with a smile.
The crowd at Another Way trends younger than those at the church meals. Gordon, 23, said he visited there three times a week, when his mother was working. “I like the laid-back, relaxed atmosphere,” he said, “and Aimee [Powers] is a fantastic cook.”
Less than 10 miles from State and Main, the rural version of a community lunch can be found each Wednesday at the Worcester Town Complex. With no bus route, and not a lot of other businesses or services, Worcester doesn’t attract as many needy or homeless people to its meal. There, community members walk down Route 12, descend from their class 4 roads in the hills, or even drive from where they’ve moved, far outside of Worcester, to catch up with neighbors and meet new people.
They do some business with each other and celebrate together. At a recent lunch, a man approached Reed Stroupe and told him the stone for Stroupe’s wood stove hearth was in his pickup, as they’d discussed at a previous meal. Everyone sang “Happy Birthday” for one of the elementary school students who volunteers there. Karen Hoskey, who coordinates the meals, said that when a regular attendee dies, they hold a ceremony and set a place for the person, with an empty plate.
One of the people drawn from Montpelier back to the lunch was seventh-generation Worcesterite Mary Mullally, storekeeping manager at Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier. She said she had been taking her grandfather to the lunch for three years after her grandmother died, and they often volunteered to wash dishes together.
Her grandfather is now gone, but she keeps coming back. “It’s such a welcoming spot,” she said. The Co-op donates culled food to the lunch and, she said, “I love to see how the food from the Co-op makes its way here to support this. It touches my heart so deeply. And we just have fun!”
Between the donated food, donated space, donated labor, and food obtained through the Vermont Food Bank, the cost of these meals is low. Emily Seifert, who coordinates volunteers at the Unitarian, said it costs about $1.15 to serve each meal there.
However, the demand for volunteers is high. For the Unitarian meal alone, Seifert said it takes more than 30 volunteers. McCormick, at the Catholic church, said they have more than 10 volunteers.
Whatever the time and energy needed to supply, organize, and serve the meals, it’s only a fraction compared with the benefit, as the nourishment goes far beyond the contents of the pots and pans. Indeed, all the best aspects of community are cooked in, and diners receive food for the soul.
Five churches in Montpelier rotate serving lunch to the community on weekdays, and everyone is welcome, both those who can afford to pay and those who cannot. Another Way Community Center on Barre Street also welcomes everyone to its dinner on Fridays and breakfast on Wednesdays. Donation jars are available at many or all sites for those who want to support the work by paying for their meals.