On a sunny spring morning I'm on Queen Street in Parkdale, in Toronto, in Canada. The sun actually shines here sometimes (quelle surprise!), so I left the sled dogs at home and opted not to wear my favourite lumberjack ensemble. I'm not heading to the beer store for a couple of two-fours of Molson or to the butcher for a few pounds of back bacon. I'm just standing here, waiting for the doors to open at St. Francis Table . Waiting with me are Sean, Alice and Larry, three volunteers from different backgrounds who have given their time to this enterprise for a combined 10 years.
St. Francis Table is a restaurant staffed by volunteers to serve the people of Parkdale who are in need. Do not confuse that with a soup kitchen. Here the customers pay for their meals and are seated at a table with a server to wait on them. They pay only a dollar, but that single dollar is enough to make them feel less like they're getting a handout, and more like they are functioning, contributing members of society.
Brother John, a member of the Capuchin Brotherhood, an offshoot of the Franciscan family, gives me a bit of the history on the restaurant. They opened their doors in December of 1987, after a survey showed that food service for the poor of Parkdale was the number one need. "We felt that the city didn't need another soup kitchen." says Brother John. He stands at the door during meal service in his long, brown hooded robe, looking like Friar Tuck without the frothing mug of ale, greeting each customer, most of them by name, as they arrive. This restaurant has provided over half a million meals since it opened.
"From day one we had patrons owing for meals. At the end of the month every single patron was paying up. We took this as an early indicator of their appreciation for what we do here."
The restaurant is privately funded, relying on the charity of private individuals and businesses for income. It serves a three course lunch from Sunday to Friday adding a three course dinner from Monday to Thursday, with often more than a hundred customers per service. That's a lot of food and a lot of labor. They offer a drop-in space for the St. Francis Table patrons -- a warm and welcoming environment for folk to get off the street for a while.
St. Basil the Great Catholic School provides student volunteers. As part of the curriculum in Grade Twelve every student will pass through St. Francis's doors. Today there are four girls, Ivana Cotic, Diana Chiodo, Sarah Migliaccio and Patricia Rubino. Both Sarah and Patricia have been here before and were surprised by the space.
"I expected it to be more run down, I thought it would have been more like a cafeteria" Sarah admits. "I also never thought I would like serving so much." All the girls seem to love it here. Adds Ivana, "We've only been here an hour and it's so comfortable it feels like we've been here forever."
It's a very friendly place. In the spotless kitchen, Head Chef Sam Kumarasamy puts the girls to work cutting French fries. "We make our own fries here," he tells me. "The students really like to do a job different from their daily life, it makes them happy and they learn new skills. This is not only about feeding the poor, this is about bringing people together. These girls will now have a better understanding of people they see on the street. They will see them as human beings because of the experiences they've had here."
Volunteers Rosa, Lily and Alice are cutting veggies for salad while Larry prepares the tuna for tuna salad sandwiches. I'm happy to see he's using Hellman's and not Miracle Whip. If I had my way, Miracle Whip would be wiped off the face of the planet. It's disgusting.
Today is Wednesday, so it's tuna salad sandwiches and fries for lunch. Larry obviously knows a thing or two about the perfect tuna salad -- he's been making it every week for seven years. The menu is totally up to Sam for the remainder of the week. Right now he's bustling around making sure everything that needs to get done is getting done.
"My work is to keep everything organized and running smoothly. We have about two hours prep time and then we open the doors for service. The customers, they don't like to wait. Everything has to be ready when they get here."
Sam shows me the dishwashing machine which they bought from Diversey Lever, who now donates all the necessary detergent and chemicals, and maintains all of the equipment at no charge. He takes me to a large standup fridge, filled with cakes and pastry.
"Fortino's supermarket donates all day-old pastry and if Dufflet Pastry has a damaged cake they freeze it and give it to us. We're happy to have so many desserts to offer our customers."
I realize just how much these people and this calling means to Sam, who's aware of how the little extras can make a meal mean so much more than just refuelling -- everybody needs a treat.
Most of the rest of the food is purchased, with Sam buying all the meat and produce himself. "Through experience I finally found the best butcher, Mr. Limo at O Nosso Talho (Bloor and Dufferin). Sometimes the bank card has no money in it and he says ‘Don't worry about it, pay when you can.' He gives us very good deals."
We go downstairs to dry storage where two teenage boys are loading bags with dry pasta to be taken to the food bank, where all the excess donations are sent. There are rows of shelves filled with non-perishable items. Brother John tells me how one parish in Woodbridge put out a call for everyone to make lasagnas. "We got over three hundred lasagnas which are stored in the walk-in freezer. We just put the word out for what we need and usually end up with three or four times more than what we asked for, so we pass it along. Between volunteers and donors, we're blessed every day."
This place is definitely an exception to the rule when it comes to feeding the poor. If it were like this everywhere we wouldn't see Christmas in July posters for food bank drives.
St. Stephen in the Fields Church may be losing its meals program, which provides free breakfast to approximately two hundred people every weekend. The Anglican Diocese wants to boot everyone out and sell the prime piece of real estate to the highest bidder. The church was built in 1857, a food bank was started in the 1970's, the church is now serving 7,000 meals annually to the people in the community. Robin Benger, who runs the Sunday breakfast program, tells me "The church is locked in the final stage of the battle to stay alive. I'm carrying on regardless. I'm committed to making sure those people get a free meal once a week for as long as I can provide it."
Back at St. Francis Table, Sam shows me a shelf filled with boxes stamped with the American Airlines logo, containing stainless steel knives, forks and spoons. "These were donated after 9/11 when they switched to plastic. Our customers feel like they are flying first class when they use this cutlery."
I meet Brian in the kitchen, a retired elementary school teacher. He's been volunteering here for two years. "This is the one thing on my schedule that's etched in stone. It's different from other places; there's a lot of respect for the customers. They say it's really nice to be served rather than have something put on a tray. You get to know the people. Some have mental health issues, there but for the grace of God are we. These people have lives and they're intelligent, they just happen to be in reduced circumstances."
I'm introduced to Cassie and Noreen who are support staff for the Community Living Toronto Youth 2 Work Program. They are here with Sean, Andrew and Zinaida. "I come in and job coach for youth with intellectual disabilities," explains Cassie. "These three have all expressed interest in food. I'm here to teach them new skills. We have youth working everywhere. We train them on the job so it doesn't take time away from the regular staff. We stay on the job with them and slowly phase out until they are working independently. Once the customers come in, Andrew busses tables and Sean and Zinaida wash dishes. It's about allowing them to be who they are and focus on what their goals are. We don't say ‘Loblaws has a placement, you're going there.' You see a lot of growth, they're being integrated into the community. It makes them proud and gives them a feeling of self-worth."
Sean, who looks a little like Alex P. Keaton, smiles broadly to himself, he looks up and says, "This is my favorite place."
Everything's ready and the doors open. Ivana has taken her first order. "I'm so nervous, I keep asking my friend what I should say," she confides as she picks up a plate for her customer. Rosa and Alice stand behind the steam table filling orders. The servers run to get cutlery and drinks while Lily mans the coffee service. People are streaming in. It looks like lunch in any busy restaurant, with no suits and cell phones -- a noticeable and welcome difference. There are a few guys who look like roadies for the Grateful Dead, some flower children gone to seed, some seniors. Everyone quietly eats their lunch, sometimes talking with their table partners. No one is falling over drunk or screaming obscenities. It's calmer than I would have thought possible.
Gerry McGilly has been the administrator here for six years and we go to his office to talk. He got into this from a social justice point of view.
"I was doing street outreach, helping people find housing and a housing project was originally planned for this site so I was brought in. There wasn't enough money for the housing project, so a meal program was implemented instead. You can't fight housing and social justice problems so easily but you can feed people easily. The lunches here tend to be more about getting the food out and keeping it simple for the volunteers. For dinner, Sam gets a little more creative and offers more options." Gerry enjoys working with the Capuchin brothers. "They're like the hippies of the Christian world. They have a joyful way of looking at things. People are more important to them than rules and regulations. The focus here is to try and find what we have in common, not what makes us different."
For small charities, a twenty year life span is the norm; donors lose interest, your volunteers, who are usually retired people, are unable to come anymore. I ask Gerry if this concerns him. "We're not worried. The religious connection allows us to get a lot of volunteers through the local Catholic schools and the Centre for Student Missions, who send kids from all over North America to spend a week volunteering here and understanding our mission."
It's a mission that provides something rarely seen in situations where the poor and disenfranchised are concerned: nourishment and dignity for the customers, a deeper understanding of their fellow man for the student volunteers, and a greater sense of self and place in the community for those involved in the Youth 2 Work program.
I've worked as a cook for the past six years. I've been in plenty of kitchens filled with screaming, freaking madmen racing the clock to get the food ready and out to the customers who are paying a small fortune. The kitchen at St. Francis has to get the food out for sure, and they have to get it out to customers who are paying their small fortunes. These customers have had their palates honed by near starvation -- the most important part of their day is this meal. That's pretty intense pressure, but I don't think I've ever seen a kitchen full of people enjoying themselves so much.
No stress. Kindness and goodwill permeate the place. Every chef I've worked with over the years has said that the secret to good food is the love you put into it. If that's so, St. Francis Table is serving the best food in the world.
Ivy Knight (aka Ivy) writes for gremolata.com and works as a professional chef in Toronto at Joy Bistro. She is currently on the mend with a broken rib sustained while fighting as Vic Payback in the Pillow Fight League.