All four gospels include the story of the feeding of the multitudes, in which thousands of people follow Jesus into a remote area and stay until they begin to feel hungry. When his disciples argue that there is no food and they must send the people back to their villages, Jesus miraculously feeds everyone present with five loaves of bread and two fish.
“Some people interpret that parable from the gospels as being a story of magic,” says Michael Shapcott, executive director of the Sorrento Centre. Shapcott himself disagrees with that interpretation.
“I think the real point of that story is that Jesus was saying to his disciples …. ‘We live in a world where there is plenty, where everyone can enjoy a decent and good meal, and we just have to be smart enough to figure out how to do that.’”
Together with a coalition of local partners, the Sorrento Centre is now applying that principle in the form of an ambitious community meal program.
Since the last week of March, the Sorrento Centre has prepared more than 6,000 quality nutritious meals for those in need—working with its partners to distribute them throughout the Shuswap area of B.C., including the city of Salmon Arm. The centre currently prepares an average of140 meals per day, a number that is constantly growing.
The impetus for the program was the COVID-19 pandemic, which affected the Sorrento Centre and surrounding community in different ways. With the onset of physical distancing measures designed to prevent the spread of coronavirus, the Sorrento Centre was unable to host the group events, retreats and activities that account for nearly 80% of its revenue.
Meanwhile, the spread of the pandemic exacerbated local food insecurity. Shapcott points to numerous complications arising from the public health emergency, such as the difficulty faced by less mobile people in buying food from stores.
“Folks that are on the street and were doing things like dumpster diving and stuff like that, going to the back of restaurants and picking up discarded food—all that is gone because restaurants have been closed and so on,” Shapcott says. “There’s a whole new dimension to the hunger issue here.”
Soon after the onset of the pandemic in Canada, the Sorrento Centre helped convene an emergency coalition of more than 50 groups, including public health officials, local governments, social agencies, women’s shelters, homeless shelters and community organizations such as the Salvation Army. The coalition, which continues to meet on a weekly basis, sought ways to collaborate to meet the needs of the community, which included addressing growing food insecurity.
Shapcott credits the B.C. government, and in particular B.C. Housing, for playing a vital role by paying for the basic costs of the meal program. During “normal” times, the Sorrento Centre prepares meals in its kitchen for guests and charges a price. While the centre—”recognizing that these are extraordinary times”—has discounted its prices, the government’s subsidies helped make the meal program possible.
“Governments have an absolute responsibility and that responsibility is heightened during times of pandemic to ensure that people have access to their fundamental human rights: the right to housing, the right to food, the right to health care and so on,” Shapcott says.
“When a faith-based institution like the Sorrento Centre says that we’ve got the facilities and we can deliver healthy, nutritious, safe food to people who are hungry, and government says, ‘Well, we’ll support you in doing that’—then I think that’s a really good and positive working relationship that’s been established.”
The Sorrento Centre had two key goals at the start of the meal program: to act quickly in order to respond to the urgency of the situation, and to make sure that food distributed to the community would be healthy and nutritious.
“There’s been a tendency when it comes to food charity to take the view that beggars shouldn’t be choosers, and that stuff that’s stale … stuff that can’t be sold commercially, stuff that is dumped out of the back of restaurants and so on, that that kind of stuff is OK—good enough for poor people who are hungry,” Shapcott says. “Our view at the Sorrento Centre is that tasty, nutritious meals are a part of everyone’s basic rights.”
In light of the pandemic, the centre has a rigorous set of health standards and practices to ensure the safe daily transport of food.
Every morning at approximately 7 a.m., kitchen manager Karrie Tennent and assistant cook Jesse Greschke begin preparing each meal from scratch. Popular food items include roast beef, pork tenderloin, baked potatoes and vegetables. Rather than freezing the food—which can affect taste and reduce its nutritional value when thawed—kitchen staff cool the meals to a safe temperature.
Meal boxes are then packed into coolers and driven to various locations where different agencies pick up the meals to distribute to those in need. To ensure physical distancing in light of COVID-19, agencies might adopt practices such as knocking on a recipient’s door and hanging the food in a bag on the door.
One of the agencies in the emergency coalition to respond to public health needs is the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Shuswap-Revelstoke branch, the largest provider of non-profit housing in the area. The CMHA has identified low-income tenants living at its properties who are particularly vulnerable due to poverty or illness.
Dawn Dunlop, executive director of CMHA Shuswap-Revelstoke, was the main convener of the emergency coalition. Early on after the pandemic hit Canada, she reached out to Shapcott and the Sorrento Centre to ask if they might like to partner in providing meals for CMHA tenants.
The community meal program, Dunlop says, has had a “major, significant, positive impact, because a lot of our tenants are vulnerable … [to] even the stress of going to the grocery store and not having [their] own vehicle and navigating that.
“With this availability, people could really shelter in place as well as receive two extremely nutritious meals per day for both a lunch and a dinner.”
Paul Demenok, an elected official representing that part of the regional district in which Sorrento, B.C. falls, says the program is helping serve an important community need. He calls the meal program “a great example of a number of community organizations working together and collaborating.”
“I think Sorrento Centre’s done a marvelous job,” Demenok says. “Being able to step up [in] the way they have has been terrific.
“But they’re not only just participating in the current COVID situation. Sorrento Centre’s been actively involved in a number of community initiatives, and I really admire the steps they’ve taken in many areas to help this community go forward, and on a positive note.”
With the success of the meal program, the coalition of community organizations has formed a working group to consider how it might bolster food security on a more long-term basis.
Praising the “great work” of church organizations such as the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund in improving food security, Shapcott suggests that the Shuswap meal program shows what is possible at the community level.
“Here in our little corner of the world, with our little feeding program, we’ve managed to put together enough partners that we’re able in a small way to feed the multitude and to demonstrate that we actually live in a world where everyone can enjoy not only nutritious food, but also tasty food,” Shapcott says.
“That is something that I hope will inspire all of us …. Our emergency meal program is really an intent to change the narrative, just as Jesus did a couple thousand years ago when he said, ‘Stop saying what you can’t do, let’s go out and actually feed people. Let’s do it.’”
Due to rising costs, the Sorrento Centre is currently organizing a fundraising appeal to help support the community meal program. Donations can be made online through the Sorrento Centre website.