Continuing the Tradition
Two years ago a decades-long meal program for the needy in Providence had to find a new home, when the building it had been operating out of closed. An historic Episcopal church on the city’s west side stepped up - rejuvenating a program that feeds thousands of people every year with hundreds of volunteers pitching in to do it. This week Jim Hummel finds the program is feeding more than just the physical needs of those who come every week.
For more information about City Meal Site, click here.
The doors won’t open for another 30 minutes, but already a crowd is gathering this Tuesday at the side entrance of All Saints’ Memorial Church on the west side of Providence.
Right at 4 o’clock a sea of people crams through the entrance, along a downstairs hallway, around a corner and into the parish hall where one of the best meals many will have this week…awaits.
Welcome to City Meal Site: started in the mid-1980s it was rejuvenated when the operation moved from the East Side - across the city two years ago.
Ames: ``The church doors, instead of opening in, now open out.’’
The Reverend David Ames is the rector at All Saints - a familiar sight to those who drive on Route 95 south in the heart of Providence. The church was founded in 1872 and is the largest Episcopal Church in the state. But like many in the diocese it had seen declining numbers when Father Ames arrived four years ago.
Ames: ``All Saints is the only Episcopal church on the west side of Providence now and it has to bring value to the surrounding community, as historic buildings have to do going forward and I saw that need and saw what was possible here and began to develop a number of programs that could do that. And the meal site is one of them.’’
When the Episcopal Cathedral of Saint John - the home sanctuary for the diocese and the City Meal Site for decades - closed in 2012, Father Ames agreed to bring the program across town.
Alane: ``We have a lovely dinner of Shepherd’s Pie with extra cheese on top. Because that’s how we do it!’’
With it came Alane Spinney, who became head chef after graduating from culinary school six years ago when the program was still at the cathedral.
Spinney: I walked into that kitchen, oh gosh it must have been October of ‘08 and I’ve been doing it just about every Tuesday ever since.’’
Spinney works as a barista at a bakery just up the street, but volunteers her time - and her talents - here.
Spinnney: ``We try to put out the very very best meal we can on our budget. Things that maybe other meal sites wouldn’t serve. And we run it like a restaurant.’’
And like a restaurant she quickly learned what the customers like:
Spinney: ``Lasagna, I could make lasagna every week and they’d be happy.’’
And don’t like.
Spinney: ``Tuna casserole….boy did we flub that one!
Hummel: ``And you heard it.’’
Spinney: ``Oh did we ever. Did we ever. A lot of our guests don’t have the orthodonture to eat the kinds of fruits and vegetables that we’d really like to serve. Our guests have special needs medically. We have a lot of diabetics - lot of people with hypertension, a lot of obesity problems that are a result of poor nutrition.’’
Hummel: ``Tuesday at 4 o’clock is a date that they have on their calendar. And what is that like knowing that they are relying on your every week.’’
Spinney: ``I’ll be perfectly honest, there are days I get up and I think, `Oh, can I please have a day off? Please? But then I get here and we start putting the meal together and I start realizing, remembering why I do this. And it’s because people depend on us. If we’re not putting this meal out they’re going hungry.’’
Spinney and a staple of others arrive mid-day to begin food preparation. They are joined as the day goes on by an army of volunteers that all make it work as 4 o’clock approaches.
Spinney: ``Our volunteers are the heart and soul - they make it happen, because we will serve between 100 and 250 people a three course meal, sit down and we’ll do it in an hour’’
Hummel: ``That is a lot of logistics.’’
Spinney: ``That is a lot of logistics. We have students - we have volunteers from AMICA Insurance who come, great folks.’’
There are donation of food from a variety of businesses.
And even a couple of Boy Scouts volunteering from time to time, working on merit badges.
Spinney: ``There are a lot of hungry people out there, very hungry people and if I’ve learned anything in this gig, there are all kinds of hunger. There of course is the physical hunger, we can take care of that of that physical hunger. But a lot of people come here just to see friends. And sit down and be served a meal and talk to each other.’’
City Meal Site feeds an average 150 to 200 people a week, depending on the time of the month. And does so on an annual budget of $20,000 a year in donations and grants. That works out to under $3 per meal.
Nolan: ``When was the last time you bought a meal for $2.70 that was balanced and hot. And served over your shoulder. That’s incredible and can only be done with volunteers. That is enormous bang for the donated buck.’’
Jack Nolan was recruited by Father Ames seven months ago to serve on the board of for City Meal Site, which is incorporated as its own non-profit entity and not under the umbrella of any one church, even though it operates out of All Saints.
Nolan: ``I don’t ever want to live in the United State of America when it’s the richest country that’s ever been conceived of in human history and have people going to bed hungry, whatever you think the proper role of government is, it just doesn’t make sense that people who are for various reasons, not able to find a niche in the capitalist market that we live in have to suffer and have to go to be hungry and homeless.’’
Ames: ``They can’t make it and a meal like this helps. And one of the goals of this is to help to lift people out of that poverty trench, which is so pervasive. And I think if people can get a little help, even if they’re working two jobs or three jobs as some are, and find a meal for themselves or their family once a week, that’s a big help.’’
Spinney: ``I try to make it my practice to greet every guest when they come through the door. It’s two-fold. I’ve got the clicker and I’m keeping track of the number of guests who are coming in, but it also gives me a chance to shake hands, hug, say hi to old friends, let somebody who hasn’t visited us in a while they were missed.’’
Hummel: ``What’s the message that goes out to the people who come here every Tuesday?’’
Ames: ``That this is a hospitable place, that it’s welcoming that the food is excellent and they will go home feeling satisfied.’’
In Providence, Jim Hummel for The Rhode Island Spotlight.