People and programs 11/17/2015

 “[I’ve been] observing the support that the entire program is giving to so many people who would otherwise be isolated in their homes. I feel that there is an excellent sense of community with the clients when they come in for food or the community meal.” – Volunteer from The Table Community Food Centre

The connection between good food and good people permeates the air at The Table Community Food Centre in Perth, Ontario. With the winter months rolling in, The Table offers a warm, inviting atmosphere to grab a hot meal and meet a friend. Judy Dempsey, The Table’s Community Chef, often cooks warmer, richer, deeper-flavoured and heartier food in the wintertime for The Table’s three community meals a week, which get high and consistent numbers of diners throughout the winter. This high program engagement could be seen as surprising because Perth, as a small rural town, has no transit system, and is also relatively affluent. At the same time, it’s not surprising at all. People love The Table, and are willing to drive, ride-share, or walk for a healthy meal amongst their community.

Having a Community Food Centre in Perth offers different opportunities and challenges than urban-based CFCs. With a small community, it might seem like everyone knows everyone, and that’s true in many ways. At the same time, distance can decrease the visibility of those in need, and with less community services available, increase their isolation. By inviting community members in for a healthy meal, The Table is decreasing this isolation as well as bringing the community as a whole closer together. As one volunteer noted, “Many lonely people visit the CFC, especially the dinners, and when I see someone on the street who I have met at a CFC dinner, I am more likely to say hello because now they are not strangers, but neighbours.”

Photo of Judy Dempsey by Sarah Edmundson

At the helm of The Table’s community meals program is Judy, who was recently featured in Neal Brother’s Goodness cookbook as one of 37 good food fighters from across Canada. “I’ve always been really interested in good food,” Judy notes. “Food that is honest and food that represents its ingredients. I’ve never been a trend follower when it comes to food…If the food tastes good and is made from real ingredients, then it’s got to be good for you.” Judy has been involved in Perth’s food community for a long time, and in diverse capacities. From a successful restaurant owner, to a healthy school food advocate, to a sugar bush chef, Judy moved to support the establishment of The Table from the ground up, nourishing her passion for feeding others, while helping her community at the same time.

Photo by Sarah Edmundson

Four years later, The Table’s community meals program has evolved, but has also stayed the same in some key ways. The volunteers that help cook in the community kitchen are just as dedicated and hard-working as they’ve been from day one (with many volunteers having been around since the CFC first opened). In addition, Judy has noticed a shift in program participants getting more engaged and taking more ownership of the community meal program. People who come to The Table for other reasons, like to use the food bank or advocacy offices, are coming into the kitchen to help, and are gaining a lot of skills, drive, and happiness from this work. As one participant explained, “My volunteering gives me purpose and value and often offers knowledge and friendship.” Judy can’t help gushing about the wonderful volunteers she works with every week, including one participant who, in her late 70s, has truly blossomed in her experience at The Table, bringing joy and smiles to the community meal program every time she comes to help. She’s built new friendships and new skills, for example, learning from Judy how to add kale into their community meals in creative and tasty ways.

Photo by David Zimmerly

And kale gets added a lot to meals, especially in the late fall months, as Judy tries to use seasonal and local ingredients whenever possible. But community members’ reactions to things like more vegetables in meals, or different and new cuisines and tastes, have also been evolving over the years, with Judy noticing an opening up of minds and palates to healthy and varied food. With no community meal ever the same, Judy draws a lot of food inspiration from community members, other program leaders, and from across the CFC community, connecting with other community chefs to share ideas for food that tastes good and is good for you.

The lines between the staff, volunteers, and community members become blurred at a place like The Table, because as one community member remarked, “It feels like home - a haven.” Some of the regulars will even call Judy if they can’t come to a meal, because they know she’d worry. People might come to The Table for good, healthy food, but they stay for the priceless relationships they build.