Elmira has a longstanding, thriving community meal circuit that provides much-needed fundraising dollars for the organizations and fellowship for the community members who attend. Despite two years of pandemic upheaval, the community meals are still being served.
Community Care Concepts provides services so seniors and special needs clients can remain independent in the community. Staff and volunteers coordinate lunch events once a month at different locations, with the intention to bring a meal to where people are, so they don’t need to leave their community. A typical lunch brings 80 to 100 people together, said executive director Cathy Harrington.
Community Care Concept’s lunches cost $12 for a full meal, and usually come with some sort of program like guest speakers or entertainment. The gatherings allow seniors to learn more about other services available to them and hear about what’s going on in their communities.
“We often think of things like the nutrition, physical health, mental health, maintaining exercises, but the research has actually shown that one of the most protective factors to help people age well is to maintain some form of social connection with others. And that’s what we’re really trying to do is the lunches: provide an opportunity in a bit of a structured way for people to maintain those connections.”
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Gale Presbyterian Church and the Elmira Legion are two more organizations that provide meals as fundraisers in the community.
Kim Denstedt is the co-chair of the board of directors at Gale, and Hilke Dann has been a long-time volunteer working to provide the church’s meals.
For about 20 years, volunteers at Gale Presbyterian in Elmira have been providing a monthly lunch for the community as a fundraiser for the church. Denstedt says they began when the church was still at its former location on Cross Street.
It started with 40 lunches, and by 2019 the organization was providing 350 turkey dinners.
“Over the years, our lunches have become popular with different groups,” said Denstedt. “Some are people who work full-time, while others are retired and seeking a place to socialize with friends. We recognized the value of our venue for this group.
“A whole variety of people, a lot of downtown businesses, people that work there would come for lunch. When my daughter worked at TD Bank, the bank manager at that time would sometimes reward the tellers by buying them lunch at our church. And there’s some other businesses that would either pay for their employees or purchase lunch for their employees and pick it up as takeout,” said Dann.
“And then an awful lot of people that were just from our church, people that knew about it. There was a group of ladies that used to come together and play cards together. And they would kind of come and sit down together and visit while they were having lunch.”
“Our volunteers have become a close-knit lunch crew who take pride in what we serve,” Denstedt said.
“It’s not just eating the lunch, it’s preparing it and just getting together for a couple hours,” added Dann.
The group has switched to take-out lunches since the pandemic, but when people were still meeting together the group was diverse.
“We had our regulars but also saw some new people every month,” said Dann. “It was a diverse group ranging in age from babies to 90 plus. Yes, we have high chairs and booster seats.”
Denstedt said that they also provide delivery to people who can’t leave their homes and provide meal tickets to Woolwich Community Services to distribute to those who need them.
Dann says they try to source as much food locally as possible and even use produce grown in the community garden located on the property.
“Before COVID, Gale fellowship hall was a place where strangers became friends and friends met for a nutritious, delicious, affordable lunch with dessert and coffee. Since COVID, our customers call or email to order meals,” said Dann.
Rae Ann Bauman, the Elmira Legion’s public relations officer, says Legion volunteers have hosted fundraising meals since it first formed. Now, members try to host some kind of meal at least once a month.
Bauman has been involved with the legion for about 20 years, and over that time she’s seen the number of meals served continue to grow and grow. She says that for their last hungry man’s breakfast event before the pandemic, they served 600 meals. A typical Friday night event will bring out just under 100 people.
She noted there are a few annual meals that the Elmira Legion has become known for, including their schnitzel dinner, meat pies and chicken dinners. The recipes come from cookbooks put together by members and the ladies auxiliary, who created a cookbook as one of their first projects when they were formed. At the same time, “we’re very good at trying new things too,” said Bauman. They also give out take-out meals, which they had to rely on when the pandemic hit.
Legion members fundraise their operating budget, said Bauman, and the community meals they provide are a large part of that effort. They also raise money to give away for various donations.
“When it comes to our organization, as much as we support our members and our veterans, we still rely on our community, “ said Bauman.
During the pandemic, the organization switched to take-out and the community continued to support them, she said. But the organization is emerging from the pandemic strong. Bauman says for their first in-person hungry man breakfast since the pandemic on January 15, they’re expecting 400 to 600 people.
Said Harrington, “the importance of food and fellowship can never be underestimated.”