by Kevin Dicciani
On the second and fourth Wednesday of every month at the Church of St. Martin in-the-Fields, a hot meal and a supportive community await for those in need.
The events are called “Suppers,” and Debra Roberts, of Wyndmoor who is a parishioner of St. Martin’s, is the woman behind their inception.
“I didn’t want to start a soup kitchen, but a dinner program, a meal ministry,” Roberts said.
In February of 2012, Roberts began working with the rector of St. Martin’s, the Rev. Jarrett Kerbel, to draw up a blueprint for the Suppers. Roberts said the focus of the program would be the people who suffer in silence, trying to endure the harrowing feeling and uncertainty of where to find their next meal.
“Food insecurity can be invisible,” Roberts said. “You can hold it together on the outside, making sure your children have enough to eat, even if you don’t, but after a while it gets tough, and you can lose hope.”
Kerbel said he loved the idea immediately. He thought it was a beautiful way to build community, break down the walls of isolation and provide meals for those on a stretched budget.
“It provides a way for food insecure neighbors and isolated or lonely seniors to get a free, healthy meal without feeling conspicuous or singled-out for help,” Kerbel said.
Roberts and Kerbel decided the Suppers should be held bi-monthly. They would be free and open to anyone from anywhere because, as Kerbel said, “Hunger for nutrition and hunger for community are everywhere.”
After coming up with the structure and schedule of the program, the two of them moved on to what kind of food would be served. The Suppers include a three-course menu – each menu differing from the last – consisting of fresh fruit and vegetables, hearty and healthy dinners, and dessert.
About 40 people attended the first Supper. Two years later, the number of attendees was close to 145. On average, about 90 to 100 attend each Supper, more so at the end of the month, when people are running out of resources to feed themselves and their families.
“This program has steadily grown within St. Martin’s congregation, but also outside of the community – which is exactly what we had hoped,” Roberts said.
25 to 30 percent who attend the Suppers are not from St. Martin’s. Though some come from Chestnut Hill, many come from adjacent communities, such as Germantown and Mt. Airy. Roberts said that word- of-mouth from attendees has contributed to the rise in attendance, adding to the diverse community already in place.
“Our guests dine with our members and there is no way to tell who is who,” Kerbel said. “The meals have proved to be a beautiful way to build community, break down walls of isolation and provide meals for folks who are on a stretched budget.”
The elderly are one demographic that is of particular importance to Roberts.
“You can drop off a meal to someone who is elderly,” Roberts said, “and it’s a great, nutritious meal, but they’re still eating that meal alone.
“The beauty of Supper is that they come in for an hour every other week, and they’re talking to people and they’re learning about people. We really want to start a kind of buddy system, having the members of the parish bring their neighbors, participate, join us and see if we can extend that community to the elderly who might not be able to get out much.”
Thirty people, including children, volunteer to help Roberts host and serve the Suppers. They form what’s called the Supper Crew. A handful of the crew have no affiliation with St. Martin’s and instead like to work in the kitchen and be a part of a tight-knit community.
“This wouldn’t happen without these 30 people, it’s really the power of the crew,” Roberts said.
Roberts said the Suppers, aside from helping people navigate through the fact that they don’t have enough food, are about building a volunteer core and reaching out to the community at large.
From its humble beginnings to now, Roberts is taken aback at how the Suppers and its volunteers and attendees have evolved.
“I’m constantly amazed by the people and the power of this ministry,” Roberts said. “There are people who I’ve watched come every week since the doors opened, and they came alone and didn’t know anybody. Now there’s a table of people who have come together, and every time Supper is offered, they expect that their table of comrades is going to be there. It amazes me that this meal means so much to them – because it isn’t just about the food.”
For more information on the Suppers, visit www.stmartinec.org.