25 Years of a Community Kitchen

By Joe Mancini, Good Work News, March 2010

When you walk up the stairs to the new St. John’s Kitchen around lunch time, you are immediately confronted by the buzz of activity. There are people everywhere, some are entering the medical clinic where the psychiatric outreach project has open hours, others are scraping and piling dishes to take to the dishwasher, a barber is giving haircuts by the washrooms, the serving line stretches past the laundry, and a few people are waiting their turn to use one of the two shower rooms. This can all be observed within ten feet of the stairs. To the right is the actual serving area and of course the dining hall filled with some 150 people.

This is the place that is St. John’s Kitchen. Here, each weekday, hundreds work together to ensure a community meal is served. Here the full meaning of community comes to be understood. How to welcome the stranger? How to ensure all have access to a full meal? How to involve the many in the work of producing a meal? How to support those who tenuously cope with a barrage of problems that raise them up and knock them down? How do we do this with love, without judgment, in a way that respects the dignity of all involved?

The location of St. John’s Kitchen changed in 2006, but the immediateness of the pressing issues that people face, the daily production of the meal and the daily gathering of over 200 people has changed little over 25 years. Standing in the serving line on January 14th 2010 is a thankful reminder of the 1000’s of people who have contributed to the daily meal over the last 25 years. When the journey began with the first meal served on January 14th, 1985, we hardly understood the precious community effort that would evolve into the present St. John’s Kitchen.

During the lunch rush the serving line usually stretches over 50 people for over an hour. There is no sense that the line needs to be hurried through. The experience of the line is rather an emphasis on the communal nature of lining up together. The conversation is free flowing with people acknowledging each other, catching up on the latest news and exchanging gossip. When you get to the servers dishing out each plate, this is also about conversation, friendly smiles, and asking people about their preferences. Would you like the vegetarian option today? What kind of dessert – cookies or fruit salad?

It is essential at St. John’s Kitchen that the serving line not become a instrument for isolation, where friendliness is abandoned and stringent rules are used to keep order. Dave Conzani, a long time friend of St. John’s Kitchen, wrote about what it feels like to have your dignity taken away while in a line.

“I’ll never forget in one particular hostel we were all lined up for a meal and handing our ticket to “the staff” at the front when someone at the back went, “Moo! Moo!” in the best imitation of a Holstein cow I’d ever heard. We all burst out laughing (to keep from crying). We all knew exactly what that guy meant, all of us that is except “the staff” at the front with the puzzled look on his sainted brow.”

Another essential feature of St. John’s Kitchen is that since 1990, when our original Community and Social Services Ministry grant was withdrawn, St. John’s Kitchen has relied on our donors for 95% of our revenue. The serving of the daily meal and the welcoming of over 300 people each day has always entailed a few staff roles while the majority of the work has come from patrons who are there every day serving, cooking, clearing plates, dishwashing, mopping floors and final cleanup. This work is supplemented mostly by students and retired individuals. A daily workforce of 30-40 people combine pride in the work accomplished, helpfulness to pitch in to make sure daily tasks are completed, and learned hands-on knowledge that freely transfers the skills from one to another. Each day, the changing work crew is always thoughtful, trustworthy and determined to do the best job possible. This is the daily work of culture and neighbourliness. At St. John’s Kitchen each day are the opportunities for good honest work.

When you sit down with the other hundred patrons at St. John’s Kitchen to enjoy your meal and look around, you are immediately taken by the bright, colourful, functional design of the open kitchen and dining area. There is dignity in regular places that do not impose poverty on people.

Looking back over these 25 years it is important to consider how closely the social vision of this project has stayed rooted in the deepest meaning of community.

It is striking to consider some of the quotes from the first KW Record article written about St. John’s Kitchen. In that article you hear the voices of those who are at the heart of the St. John’s Kitchen project.

“What do you think people do when the cheques run out?” Claude Des Roches, who was 57 at the time, is quoted as asking Frank Etherington who was writing the Record story. Claude, who was almost 80 when he passed away, for many years included busking on King Street and St. John’s Kitchen in his daily routine.

Nellie Pautler was also there on the first day. She was 63 and told Etherington that she manages with part time work and never takes welfare or U.I. Nellie, who passed away in November 2001 volunteered at the Kitchen for the next 16 years.

Etherington also noted that our central idea was that volunteers – many of them people coming in for lunch – would be the main staff of the Kitchen.

Des Roche described another underlying reason to set up a community kitchen. “You learn that because you have to go without...your stomach adjusts and you drink lots of water or whatever is free. I can go without food but I have a bad time if I can’t buy any tobacco. Even for those who know how to budget – and most don’t – it’s impossible to eat and stay warm after you pay rent. If a guy’s lucky, he’s left with less than $90 a month. That means you often go hungry.”

The original goal of St. John’s Kitchen was to serve and reach out to those living in the core area who struggled with the complexities of broken community. St. John’s Kitchen in no way solves poverty but in many ways offers a place of hospitality that attempts to glue the pieces of community back together.

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