How a meal program fills not just bellies of users, but their hearts
'It gives them a place to go, share a meal, make friends, just sit around and chat with people'
On a rainy Friday morning, more than 50 people are gathered at the Legion in Kentville, N.S., waiting to be served lunch. A trio of young ladies are on stage, singing and taking turns strumming a guitar, while volunteers rush around getting lunch ready.
The name of the free lunch program is SOUP, or Sharing Our Underappreciated Produce. It runs on donations from local farms and retailers who supply nearly expired or imperfect produce that isn't suitable for commercial sale.
Robert Lutz of Waterville, N.S., is one of the volunteers. He helps set the tables and then eats lunch.
"It's a sense of belonging to the community, we enjoy giving back," Lutz said. "It gets us out of the house. We have a coffee, we share a laugh, or a joke, or whatever."
SOUP is offered seven days a week throughout the Annapolis Valley. Lutz travels to Wolfville, Middleton, Canning and Berwick to help put it on.
He said if he wasn't going to SOUP events, he would be sitting at home watching television or listening to music. The sense of community and acceptance encourages him to help out.
"You could be the richest of rich or the poorest of poor, we'll serve you regardless," Lutz said. "It gives us a sense of giving back to the community. It makes us feel good and makes them feel good."
In the Legion kitchen, Michelle Byrne is organizing dishes and peeling potatoes. She's a first-year social services student at NSCC's Kingstec campus. As part of her studies, she's among 24 students who each volunteer 100 hours at SOUP locations across Kings County.
Byrne said the program has taught her empathy and sympathy as she gets to know the volunteers and community members who participate.
"It gives them a place to go, share a meal, make friends, just sit around and chat with people," Byrne said. "It also helps people feel like they belong to their community and they're contributing to their community."
For lunch, there's potato salad, bacon cheeseburger mac and cheese, corn chowder and rustic tomato soup. Chocolate cake with chocolate cream cheese icing is served for dessert.
The students do table service, bouncing from the kitchen to the tables, writing down orders and delivering dishes.
Sarah MacDonald is a community food developer with the Canadian Mental Health Association. She started the SOUP program in 2015.
Food insecurity stats in Nova Scotia
"We are food insecure. Nova Scotians on a whole are food insecure," MacDonald said.
According to a report from PROOF, a University of Toronto research group, food insecurity in Canada is highest in the North and the Maritimes.
The report defines household food insecurity as "inadequate or insecure access to food because of financial constraints."
In 2012, Nova Scotia reported the highest percentage of food insecure households among the provinces, with 11.6 per cent, according to Statistics Canada.
"I want dignified food access everywhere across the province. Seven-days-a week food access was what I really was pushing for when I started all of this," MacDonald said.
MacDonald said people make wiser decisions when they have a full belly.
"Our mental health is always better when we are working and not isolating ourselves," she said.
In the future, MacDonald hopes to expand SOUP across the province so everyone has access food in a "dignified way."
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