The Family Central Board, in partnership with the Aylmer Corner Cupboard food bank, has launched a new initiative to help those in need in the community: a soup kitchen to help low-income families eat meals together for free.
“I think it's time that we have something in our own community. It's not that easy to constantly put people in cabs to get them to other places where the services are available,” said Family Central’s program manager Sean Doyle.
About half a dozen families visited on the first day of Tuesday, June 1.
The kitchen is open Monday to Friday from 7 a.m. until 1 p.m., accessed through the back entrance of the former restaurant at 62 Talbot Street East.
Visitors on its inaugural day consisted of a mother, husband and their young daughter; a mother with her two children; and a couple of “stray gentlemen,” said Mr. Doyle.
Before the opening day, the only advertising for the soup kitchen was writing on the sandwich board outside of the former restaurant. Breakfast will be served from 7 a.m. until about 10:00 a.m., then lunch will be served from then on.
“We will offer soups and sandwiches mostly, but we are going to break it up every now and then. My menu planning was also geared toward what Corner Cupboard could provide to a large extent,” said food service program manager Karolyn Friesen.
The menu may also offer spaghetti, pasta sauce, and ground beef, she added.
There is no charge for this service; all donations are welcome.
Ms. Friesen said that community partners were already lining up to contribute to the soup kitchen. NoFrill’s will provide groceries for the program for the remainder of June. ValuMart and Howe Family Farm Market are also willing to help.
The program is operational thanks in part to the hard work of dedicated volunteers. Volunteers will help to prepare and serve the food, sanitize touch points such as tables and chairs, and wash dishes. About five volunteers helped on the first day.
Volunteering at the soup kitchen can easily help to build up a resume, or to fill the required 40 hours of volunteer activities for high school students to graduate, as required by the Ontario Ministry of Education.
“We can build up a perfect resume down here based on volunteerism – get someone safe food handling certification, talk to our partners down at Fanshawe, get them to use cash register training,” said Mr. Doyle. “Before you know it, after they walk out the door, they’re hopefully coming out the other side with skill, and a resume.”
They are currently seeking volunteers to help out for the three hour breakfast and lunch shifts.
Many volunteers do several different tasks at the same time, added Ms. Friesen.
Family Central received funding from the provincial Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative on March 31. Throughout April and May, Ms. Friesen and Mr. Doyle began to put the plan in motion.
“The kitchen was being sanitized, relationships were being built, going to IDA Pharmacy, going to NoFrill’s, speaking to people locally,” said Mr. Doyle of the work to establish the program.
The soup kitchen successfully passed an inspection from Southwestern Public Health (SWPH) to remain open for dine-in during the COVID-19 pandemic. The health unit confirmed with the Express that, “soup kitchens are exempt from indoor dining restrictions since they are providing food, in addition to temporary relief from the outdoors (i.e. extreme heat).”
Face masks are required, and offered to guests at the door; visitors must physically distance at the tables, with either plexiglass in between tables or people from one household (maximum four) seated at every other table.
An exact limit of visitors was not specified; prior to the pandemic, about 120 people could be seated at Family Central. SWPH workers will continue to inspect the facility on a drop-in basis.
“Whatever they ask us to do, we’re happy to do. Our focus is just to make sure we’re as clean as possible and feeding people. I don’t want to get shut down because we forgot a mask, or didn’t social distance,” said Mr. Doyle.
In addition to the free meals service, eventually, Family Central will also look to include a “Good Food Box” program.
The program, run by SWPH along with other organizations, is a bulk-buying food program that provide a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, cheese and eggs or yogurt at a discounted price.
“This is something that the community is already starting to rally behind,” said Mr. Doyle.
Visitors to the soup kitchen will also get the opportunity to connect with Family Central’s systems navigator and counsellor for assistance if needed, in the office space below the restaurant.
Family Central offers various other social services, including affordable apartments for program participants who want assistance to attain goals around employment, education and life skills, counselling services, and a warming centre this past winter.
All of these services are intended to get to the root of unemployment and homelessness in the community, and to empower people to effect a long-lasting, positive change in their lives, said Mr. Doyle.
“We don't want to be putting a bandaid on anything here. We want to be teaching people and we want to be active in their growth,” he said.
Veronica Reiner, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Aylmer Express