Pay-it-forward meals bring street-level caring

One lunch guest at the London Coffee House remarked that this was the best food he’d had in a week – and his first hot meal in three days.

Through the generosity of United Way supporters this fall, more than 2,400 neighbours in need got access to nutritious locally sourced meals. Folks at several agencies enjoyed a menu that included butter chicken with rice, burgers and pizza as part of a pay-it-forward initiative integral to this year’s 3M Harvest Lunch and United Way Campaign Launch.

At London InterCommunity Health Centre, executive director Scott Courtice said, “We serve people for whom getting through daily life is a challenge. This meal means that our friends have one less worry, at least today, about finding something nutritious to eat.”

Participants in the 3M Harvest Lunch and United Way Campaign launch paid for at least one neighbour-in-need meal for every lunch ticket they purchased. Many London ticket-buyers generously donated their entire purchase when the planned in-person event on Sept. 19 was cancelled.

Volunteers from 3M Canada, along with Sponsored Employees representing a cross-section of area workplaces, helped make drop-in diners feel welcomed.

‘Somebody cares’

Smiles and fist bumps were as plentiful as the food, when lunch was served outside The London Coffee House, a drop-in program run by CMHA Thames Valley Addiction and Mental Health Services and funded by United Way Elgin Middlesex.

For Coffee House friends, whose numbers are growing as cold weather approaches, “this lunch is a sign that somebody cares,” said staff member Paul Miszczyk.

“Every one of these people is battling loneliness. They can come down here and at least not be alone. You’d be surprised at what a smile will do for someone.”

Costs escalate

For people at The INN in St. Thomas, the neighbour-in-need meal was also a welcome sign of a community caring during tough times.

Connie Sanders, food coordinator at The INN, said, “It gives everybody a full belly and, for at least a little while, everything is great.” 

Sanders said food costs at The INN have escalated since the start of the pandemic: double the number of clients, plus food inflation, have meant higher expenses and more modest donations from the wider community where the general public is also struggling to keep up with their own rising expenses. 

Social services that offer a range of help in the region all note the growing numbers and the growing complexity of issues for the most marginalized. 

Courtice, of the London InterCommunity Health Centre, said systems to support people in need “have been in trouble for a long time, but the pandemic just broke people. 

“Organizations like ours – London InterCommunity Health Centre and United Way Elgin Middlesex and others – once had to fill in the gaps. Now we’re staring into massive chasms in the safety net. 

“And while we try to help keep people alive one more day and then another one more day after that, there’s also this huge need for all of us together to advocate for change.” 

Advocacy and lasting solutions  

The deeper questions underpinning an increase in daily needs require solutions, emphasized Kelly Ziegner, President and CEO of United Way Elgin Middlesex. 

“The pandemic amplified existing vulnerabilities and created whole new ones. People already on the margins are even worse off. And people who were ok before this – and then experienced an unforeseen rent increase or had to take unpaid time off work to stay home with a sick child – these folks are just not rebounding,” Ziegner said. 

That’s why another key role of United Way is advocating policy shifts that give everyone a fair shot at a good life, she said.  

“Longer-term solutions will come from intentional systemic change: Housing security. Fair wages. Long-term investments in food security, mental health and addiction support.” 

This year, United Way Elgin Middlesex supports a network of 52 essential programs and seven pilot projects at 41 local agencies in London and in Elgin and Middlesex counties. United Way also funds 2-1-1 services and the New Beginnings Loan Fund for women leaving dangerous or abusive situations. Investments total $6.65 million. 

United Way Elgin Middlesex is the region’s largest non-government funder of social services in the region.  

The United Way 2022 Campaign is in full swing, with workplace fundraising campaigns accounting for about 70 per cent of donations. Events such as TD StairClimb for United Way also help raise money and a sense of shared community purpose.