The Lutheran Settlement House (LSH), 1340 Frankford Ave., a community-based nonprofit serving children, adults and families living in Philadelphia, recently added another vital service to Fishtown and the surrounding area: a community meal program.
Thanks to an idea from the Hungry to Healthy program coordinator, Chloe Wharnick, and food and funding from Thrivent Financial, the Inter-Generational Farming and Nutrition Afterschool program came together and the idea to life came to life.
“We’ve had this idea for a long time, but we were lacking the resources,” said Samantha Merkt, director S.A.F.E. (Students Aiming For Excellence), the afterschool program at LSH. Merkt, who has been with the organization since the end of December, designs and executes programs for local teens based on nutrition, cooking, social justice, health, and other relevant topics.
In addition to the support from Thrivent Financial, the meals are possible because of a recently installed commercial-grade demonstration kitchen on the first floor of LSH, which was funded by Penn Treaty Special Services District as part of a larger $1.5 million renovation project. The project also expanded food cupboard storage capacity and massively increased food distribution to low-income Fishtown residents.
The first community meal took place on Thursday, Feb. 4, and engaged individuals experiencing homelessness. Some of the teens in the afterschool program had experienced or been touched by homelessness themselves and wanted to cater their efforts toward that population.
“The kids all knew where homeless people slept and where to find them,” Merkt said. “They all wanted to give back to that community of people.”
Aside from actually helping prepare and serve the dinner, the teens read poetry that touched upon concepts of home and homelessness.
Teens from all around Philadelphia come to the afterschool program and LSH typically sees about 12 teens join in per day, with approximately 18 to 20 in the program.
Although some are connected to LSH because of their parents’ involvement in another program offered there, or their own homelessness, others are teens who go to school or live in the area and want to give back.
The community meals program gives the teens a sense of “ownership” in their community, and teaches leadership, goal setting and other invaluable skills through service, Merkt said.
Plus, the teens enjoy working with the seniors.
“The idea came from a place of people wanting to give back,” Merkt said. “But as we can see with the second meal, this is also something the community needs, otherwise we wouldn’t have people showing up.”
The second meal, which brought in more than 30 people, took place on Thursday, March 17, St. Patrick’s Day. The senior center members and teens prepared a traditional Irish beef stew, Irish soda bread, and served treats donated from Little Baby’s Ice Cream for dessert.
“Holidays are really hard for people who are homeless, and don’t have family or anyone to celebrate with,” Merkt said. “This is a really good time for us to put something together, and build a community where people don’t have a community to celebrate with.”
The staff and seniors prepared the meal, and the teens joined in around 4 p.m. and started plating and serving the food to their diners.
Aside from building community, the initiative seeks to promote healthy eating.
The community meals seek to utilize the fresh fruits and vegetables that are grown in LSH’s urban farm across the street. Staff at LSH hope the garden will be in full bloom and producing food by the beginning of May. Thanks to a healthy food grant from Wal Mart, LSH was provided with all of the tools they need to maintain the garden.
Next up on the menu for the community meals program: vegetarian chili, rice, corn bread, and all the fixings.
LSH staff and volunteers are hoping for a crowd of 30 to 50 people at their upcoming dinner on Thursday, April 28, from 5 to 6 p.m.
“Everyone is welcome,” said Merkt.
On the day of the dinners, the staff and afterschool group head out in the neighborhood and encourage people to join them at the free meal.
Although their word-of-mouth marketing seems to generate the best results, the group also posts flyers, sends emails, and canvasses local businesses for support and help in spreading the word.
“There’s such a diverse range of people that come to the meal. Some people are homeless, some people are low-income, high-income, some people are on our board of directors who want to help,” Merkt said. “To come together and eat a meal on the most basic level is really nice.”
To donate to or volunteer at the community meal, email firstname.lastname@example.org.