On January 7, 1997, Mayor Diane Haskett wrote a letter to Rev. Bob Ripley asking our church to participate in the Out of the Cold Program, as part of the Mayor’s Anti- Poverty Action Group. This program was inspired by the example of Toronto’s Out of the Cold Program, where churches opened their halls and basements for shelter to homeless street people after some were found freezing to death in winter. Metropolitan’s Social Action Committee decided to begin serving a dinner meal on a trial basis on Fridays, starting in February 1997, under the leadership of Sheila Evans, co-chair of that committee. A meeting of interested members was called and volunteers were recruited, some of them still involved with our meals 26 years later.
In May 1997 an evaluation of the winter trial program was conducted. It had served ten meals with four cooking teams and offered a social evening (movie) for those who wanted to stay. While the church was ready to keep the guests overnight, no one ever slept at the church. Among the listed accomplishments figured nutritious meals in a friendly environment, few guest problems, and youth and non-members involved in meals. It was recommended to take the summer to organize regular cooking and serving teams, decide on fixed menus, prepare job descriptions, etc. Metropolitan recommended meal service in October 1997 and in January 1998, Metropolitan’s Session committed the church to providing meals on a year-round basis. The name of the program was thus changed to Hospitality Meals.
It was soon observed that very few guests stayed for the social evening part of the program, and we stopped showing movies after the meals. We also stopped distributing clothes or blankets, as we did not want to duplicate services offered efficiently to the neediest by other organizations.
A London Free Press article dated December 13, 1997, claimed there were no homeless individuals at that time in London, but many people were looking for a meal. A large percentage of our guests lived on a disability pension and men outnumbered women five to one. Very few children attended the meals.
From the start, it was observed that the biggest challenge in providing the meals was to estimate the number of guests to be fed each week. The numbers increased as the month progressed until the welfare or disability cheques were distributed and then fell dramatically, only to begin rising again.
Statistics for 1998, the first full year of operation, showed that 4,184 meals were served to an average of 82 guests at a cost of $5,592., i.e., $1.34 per meal.
Our program became an active member of the Hunger Relief Action Coalition (formerly Advisory Committee) which included representatives of the various church food programs. We met regularly under the leadership of Dr. Elizabeth Bright-Sea to share information and develop strategies for better provision of hospitality meals in the City of London.
In October 1999 we started collecting donations from Bellamere Food Market. We only had one food coordinator, Marilyn Dutton. Louise Mauffette-Leenders was the volunteer coordinator.
In the fall of 1999 Sheila Evans resigned from chairing the hospitality meals as she moved to Calgary. Louise Mauffette- Leenders replaced Sheila as co-chair of the program with Marg Mathyssen, a retired nutritionist, but continued coordinating the volunteers, sharing this responsibility with Carol Ashdown for ten years. Marilyn Dutton took on solely the responsibility of weekly food coordination and kept it for nearly three years. Ron and Deb Koudys were responsible for buying most of the food since the beginning of the program. Back-up volunteers were recruited, and we moved to a five-week rotation menu to avoid volunteers’ burnouts. Menus were simplified and standardized. By 2000 about 200 people, including some non-members and students, volunteered to help with the program, about half of them as regular team members and every five weeks as cooks, servers, or greeters. These numbers held steady until 2019. It would be too long a list to try to name all the regular volunteers, including those who were leaders of two teams per month. But, for many years, the replacement of Louise as volunteer coordinator during the summer months by Margo Maruncic and Nanci Harris, and later Marjorie Frankel, was truly appreciated. We must also recognize the special contribution of Denise Beatty, a registered dietician, who took on the leadership of a cooking team from the start and continues to this day in 2023. She has also acted as a consultant on various subjects pertaining to our meals.
In 2000 instructions were developed in case of emergency. It is fair to say that through the 22 years of operating as a hospitality meal program, very few incidents ever happened, and the guests were very well behaved for the most part.
In June 2001 Lenie Vareka replaced Marilyn Dutton as food coordinator and accepted an offer to co-chair the whole program, replacing Marg Mathyssen. Lenie fulfilled these responsibilities with joy and diligence until 2008. She died from cancer at the age of 66 on Nov. 21 of that year. An ancient mosaic interpretation of the Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fishes hangs in the Vineyard to commemorate her wonderful contribution to the meals. The plaque underneath says, “True to her Dutch heritage, Lenie aimed to serve nutritious meals to the hospitality meal guests while stretching every penny. At times her skills verged on the miraculous!” Under her leadership the cost of meals went down to 95 cents per meal! It took six food coordinators to do what she was doing alone, not counting the many times she would make her special apple cake for all the guests.
From the start, the Middlesex-London Health Unit had been providing guidelines to follow regarding the cooking and serving of food, abiding to Public Health Food Regulations. But, in 2005 we started being inspected by the public health authorities and implemented all necessary adjustments.
In 2005 during extensive renovations at the church and construction of the elevator, our meals moved to Wellington Street United Church. We hosted the meals there for more than seven months.
We also remember the special Christmas meals with Nancy Schofield playing Christmas carols on the piano, and the summer barbecues which started in 2006 and became an annual event until 2019.
For many years the Hospitality Meals Program was not part of the formal church budget. Somehow, donations from volunteers and other church members or groups always met or surpassed the program’s needs. Canada Life (formerly London Life and Great West Life) started making annual donations of $1000 which have increased over the years to $2,000. The Southern Ontario Street Rods Inc. gave substantial annual donations for a number of years until the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020. Various church groups and programs such as Time-Out, Christmas Hampers, Knit Wits, Bakers’ Dozen and United Church Women (U.C.W.), made generous donations over the years. There were also in-kind donations such as desserts and the many crates of eggs donated every summer for many years by Bill Gray for the making of our summer menu sandwiches. Unger’s Market started making weekly donations of bread, fruits, and vegetables in 2002 and still does to this day (2023). Keith Lazenby picked up these donations for twelve years and was replaced by Walker Schofield and Bob Riddell. Remark Fresh Markets started making weekly donations of vegetables in 2005 and did so until 2019.
In 2009, due to the recession, the number of guests we served peaked at 6,151—an increase of 18% over the previous year. The weekly number of guests ranged from a minimum of 65 to a maximum of 172, resulting in major challenges for planners, cooks, and servers. To reduce costs among other measures, we looked more actively at bargains, healthy substitutes, and ways of reducing waste.
In 2010 Reverend Dr. Jeffrey Crittenden became our Senior Minister and joined a regular serving team with his family. That year one of our volunteers, Elizabeth Lawson, decided to pay for the replacement of 24 tables and 160 chairs which were in very bad shape. This represented a major financial contribution to the church and a significant enhancement to the program.
The Hospitality Meals Program, with a line item of $8,000, was included in the 2011 church budget for the first time.
In 2012 we initiated an informal music program where our guests, some very talented, were invited to play the piano and entertain the assembly. On a more serious note, following the implementation of new municipal bylaws, the Middlesex-London Health Unit requested food-handling certification for one member on each cooking team. Consequently, 12 volunteers were certified and some renovations to our pantry were cleverly completed by Marcel Goulet, the church Sexton and a firm supporter of our meals. In November we adapted the new Metropolitan Risk Management Policy to our meal circumstances and designed an information form for new volunteers.
In 2013 we elaborated the Hospitality Meals Program Policy, reviewed emergency procedures, and had our first of regular successful inspections of the kitchen by the Middlesex-London Health Unit. Metropolitan’s youth also started getting involved in serving the meals, offering respite to the regular teams.
In January 2014 we invited Joe Belanger, a former guest and experienced cook, to serve as a volunteer every Friday for a number of years, and to join the planning team consisting of the program chair and all the food coordinators. Among various initiatives, Joe undertook to bake nutritious oatmeal bars for the winter months. In 2016 we agreed to pay Joe a monthly honorarium of $125 as he had become a team leader and a pillar of the program, working at least three hours every single Friday of the year, as several of our regular volunteers were aging and had to retire for health reasons. Joe’s sudden death on June 5, 2018, took us all by surprise. His funeral at Metropolitan was well attended. His dedication to our meals was sorely missed.
Meal attendance started declining every year starting in 2013 when St. George’s Anglican Church also began serving evening meals on Fridays.
In June 2015 we held a memorable volunteer recognition party at the church.
In 2017 we initiated a special dessert team, often using Koas Huizenga’s apples to add variety to the meals. We also conducted another food-handling certification program as our certificates were only good for five years.
In 2018 we organized a Crisis Prevention Intervention and Building Mental Wellness training session for 45 greeters and security staff from eight churches, as some incidents had happened involving guests with mental health conditions.
In 2019, in view of lower in-kind donations from Remark Fresh Markets, we welcomed the offer of an anonymous church member to visit various grocery stores and ask for gift certificates. His efforts resulted in a lot of extra funds for the program. In October another Food Handling Certification training course was offered to certify our food coordinators and the serving team leaders, and to conform to new health regulations.
In view of the increased number of homeless people living in London, we invited all the volunteers of hospitality meals programs across the city to a talk by Abe Oudshoorn, chair of the London Homeless Coalition. His talk was called Understanding our Guests Better and Preparing for Drug Emergencies. Fifty city- wide volunteers attended this meeting and received kits and training on how to administer Naloxone. One of these kits was used a few months later to revive one of our guests who had passed out in the men’s washroom.
In mid-March 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic hit Canadians. Abiding by the health authorities’ restrictions on group size, we started providing take-out dinners and distributing them at the church door on Friday evenings. Getting sufficient and willing volunteers to come to the church to prepare and pack the meals was a challenge. Knowing how many people would come to the church door proved an even bigger challenge although we were able to find an outlet for leftover meals by giving them to London Cares for distribution to the homeless. When we heard that the Salvation Army, with funding from the City, was offering daily take-out meals and needed volunteers to serve these meals, we interrupted our meal services and supplied the Salvation Army with volunteers from May until that program stopped in early August (2020). We decided to restart our hot dinners from September to December as take-out meals despite having lost many regular volunteers and team leaders. With some new volunteers we started operating on a four-week menu rotation basis instead of five, with a reduced number of cooks and three packers. Nevertheless, the number of people coming to the church door for meals was dwindling because of the ongoing pandemic. So, we met with London Cares to develop a partnership, as its staff had expressed a strong interest in distributing our meals to the homeless.
In January 2021 our program’s name was changed to ‘Met Cares’ Meals. We simplified the menu, redid job descriptions for the food coordinators, the cooks, and the packers, and started with preparing 60 (in July 70, and later 80) meals each week, knowing that they would feed the neediest in our community. We also decided to make an appeal to other members of the church to contribute to these meals from the safety of their own kitchen by baking sweets, such as brownies or rice krispies squares. Chris Mackay has been coord- inating this ongoing part of the program which truly enhances our meals and is greatly appreciated by the people we feed.
2022 marked the 25th anniversary of our meals program. Due to inflation and extensive use of packing materials, the cost of our meals increased by over 33% in 2022, reaching $2.25 per meal despite more donations from Unger’s Market and the provision of sweets by church members.
Conclusion But Not the End
Since 1998 we have prepared a total of nearly 115,000 nutritious meals at the lowest possible cost. Until 2019, we had served—always with respect, dignity, and compassion—106,000 nutritious meals to our guests who were hungry and lonely. And, since 2020 we have distributed 9,000 more meals in partnership with London Cares to the neediest people of our community.
We must acknowledge the amazing commitment of our volunteers. Many of them have served in a variety of roles. A special mention must be made of Emily Breau, our oldest volunteer who, at the age of 90, continues to peel potatoes for 80 people every four weeks. At the risk of forgetting anyone, Exhibit A is a list of the team leaders and key people who have helped in this program, with the year they started being involved and the year they withdrew their involvement. Those whose names appear without a final date continue to be involved. This list does not include the countless volunteers who were members of the cooking, serving or greeting teams sometimes for many years, and who contributed greatly to the meals.
This brief history of our meals would not be completed without mentioning the faithful assistance of church office staff, custodians, and security staff week after week.
May we continue to do this work with joy, and in a spirit of compassion and understanding not only towards the people we feed but also towards each other.
List of Team Leaders and Key Volunteers of Metropolitan Meals Program from 1997-2023
Phyllis Anderson, 2004-09
Carol Ashdown 1997-2017
Henry Barlow, 1997-2014
Gail Bass, 2020-
Lisa Bean, 2004-12
Denise Beatty, 1999-2023
Joe Belanger, 2012-18
Barb Carthright, 2015-19
Kathy Chyk, 2014-
Bill Cluff, 1999-2019
Jim Courtney, 1997-
Tonia Crittenden, 2014-18
Jim Desand. 2007-20
Marilyn Dutton, 1997-2000
Sheila Evans, 1997-99
Paul Ferner & Nancy Graves, 2004-?
Jackie Farquhar, 2020-
Jan Fife, 2013-20
Charlene Foley, 2004-16
Marj Frankel, 1998-
Doug Glaholm, 2018-
Carolyn Glass, 2014-19
Marianne Gowanlock, 2014-21
Barbara Gray, 2020-
Nanci Harris, 1997-
Al & Nancy Herrington, 2011-20
Martha Johnson, 2018-20
Donna Karges, 2004-
Sharon & Barb Kelly, 2004-20
Judy Kennedy, 2013- ?
Ron & Deb Koudys, 1997-2000
Kay Kreitner, 2007-10
Keith Lazenby, 2000-14
Marlyn Loft, 2000-
Anna-Marie Lyons, 2021-
Jackie Lutz, 2004-15
Chris Mackay, 2014-
Margo Maruncic, 1997- 2022
Marg Mathyssen, 1999-2001
Barb & Kim McArthur, 2010-14
Marilyn McCoy, 1999-2013
Marilyn McRorie, 2014-20
Louise Mauffette-Leenders, 1997-
Kathleen Milligan, 1997-
Joy Morrison, 2005-14
Nancy O’Brien, 2022-
Ruth Reath, 2004-10
Kelly Reeves, 2016-20
Robert Riddell, 2014-
Walker Schofield, 1997-2022
Inga Slade, 1997-2017
Sarah Smith, 2000-
Shirley & Doug Stevens, 2004-20
Bill & Terri Suzuki, 1998-
Betty Taylor, 2010-13
Jayne Terry, 2007-
Kathy Thorp, 2018-23
Sandra Toivonin, 2020-
Veronica Trudell, 2003-07
Lenie Vareka, 1998-2007
Liz Waters, 2016-20
Sharon Whatford, 2014-22
Shirley Willoughby, 2004-18
Christine Wood, 2011-20
Note: This list does not include the countless volunteers who were regular members of the various teams, sometimes for many years, or who helped as spares. They are truly the ones who made this program a reality.