Bridgeport Café in Waterloo provides hot meals and a chance to connect
'We tend to help each other out. It really is a community,' poverty activist Martin Suter says
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Volunteer Grace Pidduck sits at the piano of the gym at Emmanuel United Church in Waterloo, playing a song while others sit at nearby tables enjoying a meal and some conversation.
It's a Thursday afternoon. There's snow on the ground outside and it's cold. Inside, it's warm and there's a bustle of activity as volunteers make and serve food to those who have come out to the Bridgeport Café.
"They have a good appreciation for classical music here, so I love it," she said.
"I do a lot of talking to individuals and making sure they have what they need. Sometimes we make them something special if they're not feeling well or the diet is slightly different," Pidduck said, taking a break from playing the piano for a quick chat.
Earlier that day she had prepared a fried egg 'to go', for a woman who wasn't feeling well but wanted to take something home to eat.
On Wednesdays, Pidduck goes to The Food Bank of Waterloo Region to help pick up food for the cafe.
The gym café is open three times a week for people who need a hot meal. Emmanuel United's Rev. Jen Hind Urquhart says some of the people who show up don't necessarily need the meal, but they come out for the camaraderie they find.
"It's more of a community connection program rather than a meal program," she said.
The café serves about 80 meals each day. On Thursdays, there's also a food bag program where those attending can build a small hamper of goods including fresh fruits and vegetables from the food bank. In 2015, they served 1,300 families and 2,000 individuals through the food bag program. This year, those numbers are up: 1,530 families and 2,800 individuals.
Martin Suter is one of those individuals.
"I depend on the food hampers. That's how I get by through the month," he said.
Suter is a poverty advocate and a member of the Alliance Against Poverty. He says the café and food bag program are vital to people on low incomes.
"We tend to help each other out. It really is a community," he said. "One thing, if you're in poverty, you tend to be—besides being poor—you also tend to be very socially isolated and there's a real community here. That's important."
'We just show them love'
In the kitchen, Jack Veenstra leads the charge in preparing all the food. The retired family doctor is at the church six days a week.
"I'm just happy people who are hungry are being fed," he said, noting many of those who attend the program are living off social assistance.
"After they pay rent, there's not enough money left for food. There just isn't," he said.
He says what they offer through the café is a place for everyone to be themselves.
"We don't preach. We just show them love."
Hind Urquhart says the café, part of a suite of services the church offers called Waterloo Wayside, has spawned other programs such as a music therapy group.
She'd like to see them expand their food offerings to more meals and even cooking classes.
"It's really hard to make a nutritious meal out of a can of beans and a can of Spaghettios," she said, adding it would be great to teach people how to "MacGyver" nutritious meals.
"It's supporting people to become more self sufficient, independent and confident in their own abilities and not always being seen or marginalized as someone who's only taking from community," she said.
The experiences can be life changing, she adds. One woman who came in to help serve food was so excited about the work, she went to Conestoga College and became a nutritionist, Hind Urquhart says.
Once introduced to the community, people tend to get involved, she says. "It's very common that you see people coming in to receive a meal but they end up staying to wash the dishes, they end up coming back next week to set up the tables."
Hear some of the voices at the Bridgeport Café: