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People and programs 03/13/2024

“This is the best food in all of Ontario. Literally.”

Em says this as she stands at the counter, eyeing a heaping plate of lasagna and greens. 

“I’ve eaten all over,” she continues. “When moving from town to town, that happens.”

Em smiles at the volunteers plating food, takes her lasagna (the vegetarian option), and heads towards the table of her friends. On the way she leans in towards an elderly woman, greets her, asks if she needs any help, and when it’s an “All good,” continues on.

This is the way it flows at The Table Community Food Centre in Perth, ON. It’s the Wednesday community meal and the space is filling up. Tables are close-packed with people chatting. Coat hooks hold winter gear still cool from the below-zero temperatures outside.

Paul is there with his wife and their long-time friend Maggie. They forgo the hot sauce on the table and instead drink copious cups of coffee. 

A carpenter and handyperson, Joseph sits at the back with his family as they talk sports and tease their table companions, who tease right back.

A single mom sits with a retired couple. They don’t chat so much but sit together companionably.

It’s a warm space and a welcoming space. The bustle is broken only by the clatter of silverware and hellos across the room as people arrive.

Yet people talk, in bits and pieces, of hardship too. It’s not left behind when you walk in the door, and it accompanies the mealtime conversations.

Darlene will readily talk about life in this tight-knit, small-town community. As a volunteer with The Table’s Community Action Network, Darlene works with other community members and a coalition of local organizations to mobilize around pressing issues. And, as she’ll tell you, this community both cares a lot and faces some specific challenges of rural life.

“We rally about things that matter here—affordable housing, access to health services, a guaranteed annual income,” she explains. “Also, we’ve started working with some local agencies and shelters: We’re going to raise local awareness about human trafficking in the region.”

These are issues that affect urban centres too. But here in the Ottawa Valley, they take on their own urgency in a countryside where distances are big and amenities are stretched thin.

This is what The Table is built for, though. Good food and social justice. 

Besides this volunteer advocacy, the Table has hired community navigators to help people with more immediate needs. 

The community navigation office runs before and during the thrice-weekly community meals. People are welcomed on a drop-in basis to get further support—along with a nourishing meal in the dining room or groceries from the on-site food bank.

This support ranges from advice on government benefits, to handling landlord disputes, to learning about other social services in the area. According to Sam, a community navigator and a person with lived experience, this type of support is essential for people who come to The Table. These community members must navigate a system not built for easy access.

Near the end of the evening community meal, Sam comes upstairs to say hello to the people still eating. And Sam brings squash.

Yes, squash.

A generous donation from a local farm, the vegetables are farmers’-market-perfect. Going from table to table, Sam asks who wants to take some home.

Then the jokes start. Soup, stew, or casserole? What’s on sale to add to it? What will give it that extra zing? The debate stretches out as chairs scrape back and people start putting on their coats.

It’s nearly 6 p.m. and dark outside. People gulp down that last cup of coffee. Help clear the dishes. Say hello to the volunteers working away in the kitchen.

Slowly, people trickle out of the cozy dining room and out the door.

Just before leaving, one young man pauses as he passes the kitchen. “You make the most delicious food. Thank you!” he says, before heading out into the chilly night.

All names in this story are pseudonyms to protect the privacy of community members. 

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