Montague couple adapts to ensure weekly free meal still on the table during pandemic

A Montague, P.E.I. couple says the needs of vulnerable Islanders haven’t changed despite COVID-19, and that’s why they found a way to keep offering a free community meal once per week.

Norma and Darren Dingwell serve 80-90 people per week

Darren and Norma Dingwell came up with the idea to offer the community meal as a way to support those who struggle with food insecurity. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC)

For Norma and Darren Dingwell, Wednesday mornings are spent with a handful of volunteers, peeling and chopping vegetables in the kitchen of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Montague, P.E.I.

The couple has been hosting a weekly Wednesday night meal for people in the area for several years now. This spring, COVID-19 restrictions put that weekly tradition on hold temporarily, but the couple has found a way to keep it going, while adhering to public health measures.

"It's something that people had looked forward to for almost four years," said Norma.

"So then when COVID hit and everything had to stop, you know, we'd run into people that would come and they'd be like, 'Can you do it again? Can you tell us if you're going to do it again?' So, yeah, it was nice to start back up again."

Before the pandemic, people would gather in person to enjoy the weekly dinner together. When that was no longer an option, Norma reached out to the Chief Public Health Office to find a way to make it work. 

It's the best part of my week.— Darren Dingwell

Now, the meal is served in compostable takeout containers for people to enjoy at home. Masks are worn and hand sanitizer is used. And people come in one door, and go out another. 

'Feeling of community'

Norma said many people in her community struggle to pay for food, or go without so that their children have enough. She said the need for this meal has only grown — and it was important to find a way to keep offering it. 

"It saddens us that so many people rely on something like this," Norma said, adding that 80-90 people usually show up for the weekly meal. 

The weekly free community meal is prepared entirely by volunteers, using food that is either donated or purchased thanks to cash donations. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC)

"But then we are very blessed that we are able to provide even just one good meal a week for people. It's something that they don't have to worry about, a Wednesday meal. They know that they can get one here." 

The meals are prepared entirely by volunteers, with food paid for entirely through donations. 

"It's the best part of my week," said Darren, who comes up with the meal plans — everything from spaghetti and meatballs to roasted vegetables served with pork gravy and homemade biscuits. 

"We still want to make sure that people have that feeling of community, that there is somebody there for them … Even though we can't dine in and share a meal together, we can still look after one another this way. And this, we felt it was very important." 

People asked to book ahead for Christmas meal

The couple plans to host a Christmas meal, as they usually do, but with some changes: It'll be a take-out dinner, and this year, the pair is offering to deliver it anywhere in the Montague area. 

A photo from the couple's 2018 Christmas meal. (Submitted by Darren Dingwell)

"We want to get the word out to people that we're here on Christmas Day," Darren said.

"And don't go without. We're going to have all kinds." 

The couple asks that anyone interested in having a meal on Christmas Day contact them by Dec. 17, so that they know how much food to purchase and prepare. 

More P.E.I. news


Jessica Doria-Brown


Jessica Doria-Brown is a videojournalist with CBC in P.E.I. Originally from Toronto, Jessica has worked for CBC in Newfoundland & Labrador, New Brunswick, and Ontario.


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