From left, volunteer Dean Yeats and chefs Michael Burns and Gary Marston prepare bowls of tomato and rice soup to be served ahead of the March 18 Community Bread meal. Photo by Luke Mandato

Dinner with a side of companionship

  • March 24, 2024

This month marks 21 years since a church-led meal program began serving hot meals to those in need in Newmarket, Ont., and it shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon. 

As food bank usage soars, and people are feeling the sting of rising costs of food, shelter, almost everything, the need has never been greater for the initiative known as Community Bread.

Community Bread operates out of the town north of Toronto and is run by a collaboration of ministry volunteers. Parishioners from St. John Chrysostom and St. Elizabeth Seton have for more than two decades prepared and served upwards of 100 hot meals each Monday to the town’s less fortunate. 

Back in March of 2003, St. John’s pastor Fr. Bob Ouelette identified the need for a more active social presence within the local community, which led him to hire Gene Lashley to look after social service initiatives. 

“Three parishes, St. Elizabeth Seton, St. John Chrysostom and Holy Martyrs of Japan, all supported and contributed to funding her position,” said Christine Steeves, coordinator for Community Bread. “She was the one who said ‘I think there are a lot of people who seem to be in need of food, and not just actual food, but companionship and fellowship as well.’ ” 

Steeves, who served the first meal for the program in 2003, says the camaraderie aspect is a crucial, but often overlooked element of Community Bread. She spoke about the social component of the meal and its importance alongside the initiative’s other two pillars: service and spiritual support. 

“We provide an opportunity for people who may need those sorts of social interactions. These people might be seniors who maybe don’t have a lot of opportunities to meet with others. We have some people who come from group homes where again, they don’t have other opportunities to connect,” Steeves said. 

“I think that’s what makes a big difference to the people that come. That’s when they connect when they’re able to sit down and talk to each other. They are always treated like guests at our meals.” 

To keep up with demand each week, the parishes deploy five teams on a rotating basis, with a cook, a team leader and anywhere from 10 to 12 volunteers to provide the meals. After the cooks prepare the food, the volunteers handle the serving and cleaning under the guidance of team leaders. 

As for what’s on the menu, Community Bread is mandated to serve a full Canada Food Guide meal complete with proteins, carbs, vegetables and even dessert when available. 

“This is for them what it would be like for us to go to a restaurant once in a while. They come out and get what they claim is the best meal in town,” Steeves joked. 

Unfortunately, despite already serving anywhere from 80 to 100 guests each meal, Community Bread has been feeling the effects of rising food bank usage, an issue communities across the nation are facing. 

According to a report this month by Daily Bread Food Bank, in Toronto alone, it served 301,354 clients in February, up from 215,848 in February 2023. To put this into perspective, the Daily Bread Food Bank served roughly 52,522 clients in 2015. 

To make matters worse, a report from Food Banks Canada released last October confirmed that food banks across the country were visited nearly two million times in March of that year alone, an increase of 79 per cent from 2019. Second Harvest reported that this trend is expected to worsen, with the organization projecting an 18-per-cent increase in demand this year, which could see as many as one million more people relying on food banks to survive.

“While many of our guests have been the same for the most part, in the last couple of months the numbers have grown quite a bit for sure. I would say up to at least 10 per cent week over week,” Steeves said. “They’re new people and they’re younger people and that is something that I haven’t seen before.” 

Even with the substantial increase, volunteers have not missed a week of meals since they first began service. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Community Bread team was unable to use its facility for a month, but pivoted to serving takeout meals out of a nearby homeless shelter. That continued until November 2022, when in-person meals were once again served.

“We came back indoors for a sit-down meal because we felt that the camaraderie and the social aspect was missing in all these takeout meals and the people were very happy to come back in and sit down with us,” Steeves said. 

Each year, Community Bread reaches out to parishioners for financial support for the program. The cost of each weekly meal night is roughly $300, meaning any and all support is welcome. 

“I call it faith in action. We need to have this as a regular part of our social ministry so that people know that this is something important and that needs to be done. Anybody who donates can be assured that the money is only spent on Community Bread,” Steeves said.

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