Free lunch, and a community gathering place, reopens in St. Johnsbury after a 2-year hiatus
The lunch served in the basement of the United Community Church generally gets rave reviews. On the first Wednesday of the year, it’s squash, mashed potatoes, beets, turkey tetrazzini, applesauce, and cake. There’s almost always cake.
“I think St. Johnsbury is the patron saint of cake with lunch,” Terrell Scott said.
Scott has been coming to the weekly lunches here since the mid-2000s. He usually sits and chats with the same group of people. It’s a routine that’s helped him get out of the house.
“Some months I’ve lived alone and realized the only people I talked to would be doctors, my neighbor, and the person at the checkout line at Price Shopper,” he said. “So it was pretty isolating.”
He sat at a metal folding chair, around a table decorated with shiny Christmas baubles. The lunch crowd was a lot of older people, a small group of teenagers, some church staff members, and people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their aids.
At a neighboring table, Timothy Freehart shared recipes for some of his favorite desserts: peanut butter pie, and a banana split without the ice cream.
Freehart has been coming here for the past few months. Before the pandemic, he'd lived in St. Johnsbury for over a decade. Now he’s in Lyndonville at a hotel through the state’s assistance program for people experiencing homelessness.
He takes a bus to get here. He likes the food and having a break from cooking for himself. “Killing time and usually running into people that I might know or meet new people,” he said.
New people aren’t as common as they used to be though. That’s according to many of the regulars and volunteers who’ve been coming since well before the pandemic, like Beth Norris.
“We used to have like, 80 people. They’d be lined up to the back wall, waiting for service,” she said. “Then once COVID hit, we shut down. I think our last meal was March 26 of 2020.”
At the beginning of year, about 30 to 40 people showed up over the course of an hour and a half.
Some of the diners that frequented the lunches before the pandemic have moved away, or into nursing homes. Others might not want to gather in a big group, or don't know that the meals are back on.
The lunches only reopened this September, two and a half years after they shut down. Part of the delay was because of a flood in the basement. The pipes froze when the building was unoccupied.
Before that, this church basement hosted community meals every Wednesday for over 20 years. The program got its start in the 1990s at a different church in St. Johnsbury, as a community service project organized by a group of teenagers.
“It’s not just that it’s for people who are hungry, which obviously a free meal is. It’s also for community. And trying to get people who are lonely, people who want to get to know other people in the town.”Daisy McCoy, board president of Kingdom Community Services
“They ran it out of Grace Methodist Church for several years,” Daisy McCoy said. She’s been involved since those early days, and is the board president of the nonprofit that oversees the program, called Kingdom Community Services.
“Then, instead of letting it die, some church members and other community members stepped forward," McCoy said. "That was the first of the churches to do a community lunch. That was once a week, Mondays.”
Today the lunches are every day, besides Sunday. They rotate between different churches and faith-based groups in town.
McCoy runs the meal at the Universalist Unitarian Congregation on Saturdays. They’ve also seen fewer people show up since they reopened this summer.
She says most of the food comes from St. Johnsbury Academy and Northern Vermont College, and from community donations. Like a few weeks ago, a man walked into one of the churches with a cooked ham.
“So we had ham and egg sandwiches, breakfast sandwiches, and that was awesome,” said Norris, the volunteer who runs the Wednesday lunches at the United Community Church.
The lunches in St. Johnsbury are somewhat unique because you don’t need a reservation to join, and they’re open to anyone.
“It’s not just that it’s for people who are hungry, which obviously a free meal is,” McCoy said. “It’s also for community. And trying to get people who are lonely, people who just want to get to know other people in the town.”
McCoy remembers stopping at one of the lunches when she was on jury duty a few years ago.
“Most of the jury went to the Monday community lunch for our jury lunch break,” she said. “Again, there’s no stigma attached to it. It's just, anybody in town is quite welcome.”
She keeps coming back every week for some of the same reasons that draw other people in: the lunches have become a big part of her social life.
“I was never one to have big dinner parties or something like that,” McCoy said. “But that’s kind of what my Saturday meal is, is a dinner party.”
Lexi Krupp is a corps member for Report for America, a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and regions.