Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The Best Little Place Where You Will Never Eat

The name has been known in the City of Barrie for over 110 years. Last year, they served 95.000 meals and never once had to refund anyone's money. The vast majority of their customers are regulars and many eat both lunch and dinner there. Twice a day, there's a long line-up to get in and the customers often call or text their friends when the special of the day is a particular favourite - roast turkey dinner, hamburgers or leek and potato soup. But you will never eat there.

Of course, you are welcome to dine there any time. All are welcome. Come as you are to the rear entrance of 16 Bayfield St. (at Five Points) at noon or 5:00 pm any day of the year, and join the most fascinating and real people you will meet anywhere, for a home style lunch or dinner. You are about to enter the soup kitchen at the Salvation Army's Bayside Mission.

Before I was hired to work as a cook at the soup kitchen, I had next to no understanding about the complex lives of many of the citizens of downtown Barrie, nor what kind of meal service was provided by the Sally Ann.  I pictured a mug of soup being handed out now and then. How wrong I was. I was quite amazed to learn how fantastic the food offered really is!

The cooks start their day at 5 a.m. and put the coffee on for the 45 residents of the men's shelter who live on the second floor. They prepare a breakfast of toast, bagels and cereal on most mornings, but three times a week a hot breakfast of bacon or sausage with eggs, french toast or pancakes is served. Many of the men go off to work, while others stick around helping in the kitchen, job searching in the computer lab or meeting with their social worker. For the men who do go out each day, there are bagged lunches made for them. Each contain 2 sandwiches, 1 snack, 1 drink and 1 fruit.

By 11:30, a huge pot of hot, freshly made soup is bubbling away in the kitchen. Some days, it is a creation born of last evening's leftover dinner - roast beef, turkey, meatballs or cabbage roll casserole. Or it could be something based on an overabundance of in season vegetables - potato leek, french onion, ginger carrot, curry squash. The doors open at noon and when they close again 50 minutes later, somewhere around 80 - 100 bowls will have been ladled, each with a bun or sandwich, a tea or coffee and dessert.

After lunch  clean up has been finished, the morning cook hands the kitchen over to the next cook who has come to prepare dinner. They immediately get to work preparing a home-style dinner from scratch to feed anywhere from 100 - 200 diners. The amount prepared is based on the date. Most diners are dependent on a government cheque, with most receiving a disability benefit. The money that they receive at the first of each month does not go far and by mid month the number of soup kitchen patrons goes up as their funds run out. The cooks prepare the meals accordingly.

Dinners are usually familiar favourites - turkey dinner with all the trimmings, hot dogs and salads, shepherd's pie, meat loaf, chicken pot pie and more. Every dinner also comes with coffee, a bun and dessert. The dining room only holds 48 people, but even busy meal times run like clock work. Three  front line workers divide themselves between manning the door and running the dining room. As some diners leave, others are let in and the kitchen churns out plate after plate of hot dinner to all comers until there are no customers left to serve.

There is no way a solitary cook could do this all alone. The food prep, meal service and clean up is done 365 days a year with the invaluable assistance of the army within the Army - the volunteers. In a year, some 1,700 volunteers pass through the soup kitchen. Some are retired folks, others are high school or college students, there are church groups, work place teams, or people doing mandatory community service ours, but all are vital and appreciated.

But where does all this food come from? Much of it is purchased by the budget of the soup kitchen, and from the generosity of some community minded local businesses. Other items, most of it dry goods, come from a central Salvation Army warehouse in Toronto where corporate donations are received and distributed. Other food items appear out of the blue. Sometimes they are the unused food items from a wedding, funeral, church picnic, political barbecue or waterfront event, a Christmas or retirement party, or just a kind hearted soul who wanted to make a difference. The soup kitchen cooks can transform almost anything into a fabulous meal!

Next time, when you drive through Five Points, you won't have to wonder anymore why all these folks are crowded around the Bayside Mission. More than likely, it's almost meal time and they are eager to find out what delight has been cooked up inside today. The prices are the best in town - there's no doubt about that! But it's more. It's a social time to meet up with friends, visit with the staff and volunteers who most likely greet you by name, get out of the cold or rain for a bit and nourish the body and spirit. I feel privileged to work in this special little corner of the universe.

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