Inner City Youth Ministry Reinvents Its Lunch Program

Inner City Youth Ministry Reinvents Its Lunch Program

The Threshold Ministries building in Saint John is booming with activity three days a week, though not the way you might think. In one corner of the kitchen, Terry Jardine and Beth Hudson of CAA are washing apples. At the serving window, Royal Canadian Navy Reservist Acting Sub. Lt. Jason Stephen is teaching Sailor 3rd Class Ben Hallewell how to properly chop carrots. And in the dining area, volunteers retired from Irving Oil are scooping Goldfish crackers into baggies. All this food is then taken to the assembly area — several long tables pushed together. Volunteers on both sides of the table grab a brown paper bag and fill it. 

Today, the menu is sliced cucumbers and carrots, an apple, crackers, fruit bar and yogurt. The big room is a cacophony of noise — voices, chopping, bagging, people moving about. They’re at Threshold, now the operations centre of Inner City Youth Ministry’s Lunch Connection, helping provide lunch for four schools in priority neighbourhoods: St. John the Baptist-King Edward; Centennial; Hazen White-St. Francis and Glen Falls. By the time you read this, a fifth school, Princess Elizabeth, will have been added. On the day of our visit, 372 lunches were prepared in about an hour. 


It’s a much different situation than a year ago, when ICYM executive director Erin Rideout and a small fleet of volunteers showed up at each school to cook and serve lunch to children who don’t have one. With pandemic precautions in place, there’s no entering the schools, so the ICYM team has re-invented its program, now offering brown-bag lunches. “We’ve had a fair amount of change,” said Erin, now in her fifth year with ICYM. “But our heart has stayed the same.” ICYM doesn’t take on this challenge alone. Many of the volunteers have been school helpers for years. When the schools closed, they turned to ICYM. Then there’s the corporate support, not only in donations, but in bodies, like the ladies from CAA and the men from RCN. 

Partnerships are vital to the effort as well. For example, PALS, (Partners Assisting Local Schools) delivered all the lunches on the day we visited. A school official meets the PALS delivery at the door and distributes the food to classrooms. PALS, devised by JD Irving chair James K. Irving and the Saint John Education Centre of Anglophone School District – South, creates partnerships between neighbourhood schools and local businesses and community groups. Its focus is to break the cycle of poverty in Saint John’s priority neighbourhoods — an apt partner for ICYM. The school district’s community engagement co-ordinators are heavily involved with ICYM because much of their focus is on feeding their students. During our visit, Erica Lane and Ben Gillcrist popped in to see how production was going. “Inner City Youth Ministry is meeting us with that,” said Ben. “Without that element, we would be nowhere with this. Erin herself is amazing.” 


These days Erin spends a lot of time shopping for food. In the summer she met with the school district to map out what the fall would look like. “We’d been talking about a hub program — a central place — but I didn’t think it would be like this,” said Erin. “I worked to put together a menu and got the schools’ input. Our first day was Sept. 29.” That menu had to meet school nutritional guidelines, so nuts, pudding and other sugary snacks were out. Sandwiches were deemed wasteful and too labour-intensive. They also had to choose easily packed items. Bananas, they learned, didn’t fit well, were often green or brown and too fragile. “I went to Costco and walked around asking myself, ‘if I were a kid, what would I want?’” said Erin. Cooked lunches cost about $1 per serving. Bagged lunches cost about $1.68 each. The increase is significant, but they didn’t have much of a choice. “I could do it cheaper if I spent 40 hours a week just shopping,” she said. The upside is the variety, and the chance for students to take home what they don’t like or don’t eat. “It’s an appropriate lunch for children,” she said. ‘They don’t need a three-course meal. “I learned a lot from the emergency food program (run last spring and summer in Saint John) on how to do this smarter. Sometimes you do it smarter even though it’s not cheaper.” Even so, she’s still thrifty, having figured out how many ½ cup servings of Goldfish crackers are in a case — 51. They use 11.5 cases a week. Fruit bars are 22.4 cents each. She’s got it all tracked on spreadsheets


ICYM recoups some of the food costs from the schools. Some schools in turn charge parents a capacity fee, for example, $15 a month for daily lunches. Some can pay, some cannot, but no one is turned away. The Diocesan Synod supports ICYM financially, as do Trinity and Stone churches in Saint John. There are individual and community supporters, like the Knights of Columbus, which made a donation and had a volunteer on the production line. Chop-Chop is a twice-annual fundraising initiative where participating restaurants give $1 per meal sold to ICYM. All that and some fundraising help pay the bills. Erin feels blessed to be using a facility that’s spacious, has lots of parking and is accessible. “Threshold Ministries has been very generous with offering us space. It’s the perfect facility for us,” said Erin, a Threshold evangelist. “People say ‘what’s Threshold?’ and I get to tell them.” 

Back in the dining room, the place suddenly goes quiet. All the bags are packed. Now they’re counted and put in cooler bags, and the PALS team, today from JD Irving Sawmills Division, arrives to collect them for delivery. After two months, it’s become a welloiled machine. Sailor 1st Class Dave Ward is one of Naval Reservists lugging bulging cooler bags to the front door. He’s taken a vacation day from his job at Nutrition Food Services at the Saint John Regional Hospital to help out. “I grew up on the streets,” he said. “Not everyone was born with a silver spoon in their mouth. It’s important to go to school with food in your tummy. If you don’t feed children, they’re not going to be attentive.” Recently ICYM received confirmation that the Lunch Connection was getting a grant from the Brewer Foundation in Fredericton. It will allow the purchase of equipment, including a refrigerator, and the hiring of a half-time person to help Erin. That could bring her dream of adding more schools to reality. Another dream is a mentorship program, where a parent could be hired. “I’d like to address longterm food security,” said Erin. “The biggest source of food insecurity is income, so can we offer a job opportunity, like a social enterprise? That’s my goal, to offer opportunities besides a subsidized lunch — empowerment and relationships.”

Giselle McKnight
Anglican Diocese of Frederiction
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