Through a school, church and community partnership, volunteers make fresh sandwiches and pack brown bag lunches for families in need of a break in Spruce Grove, Stony Plain, Parkland County and Paul First Nation.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Auggie's Café, a ministry of St. Augustine’s Parkland Anglican Church in Spruce Grove, hosted a free, community lunch for an average of 150 people every Tuesday. In the past, Auggie’s volunteers shared a wholesome meal and companionship with their lunch guests in the church hall.
But in this extraordinary time of COVID-19 and physical distancing, public gatherings have been prohibited by health officials and the Anglican diocese. So, St. Augustine’s Parkland members looked at ways to continue safely meeting the food security needs of local families.
“Dianne (Brown) and I were talking and came up with the idea of brown bag lunches,” says St. Augustine’s Parkland rector the Rev. Billy Isenor. Brown, who is coordinator of volunteers for Auggie’s café, pitched the idea to the local school board.
As school classes have been suspended indefinitely, Parkland School Division (PSD) was on board, and provided funding for Auggie’s Brown Bag Lunch program with a provincial grant for promoting health and wellbeing among vulnerable K-12 students and their families. The program is offered in partnership with Parkland Food Bank monthly food hampers and the local Neighbourlink gift card program.
“Our primary focus is those families that have relied on the PSD School Lunch Program, however, due to community generosity we are able to offer our lunches to anyone needing a lunch or just that emotional break of planning, making and cleaning up after making lunch,” says Brown.
When volunteers arrive they check in at the health and safety table where they can access gloves, face masks and hand sanitizer, as well as complete a Health Check Form and an Oath of Confidentiality.
A three-person kitchen crew, including parishioner Michelle Squance-Slade, associate priest the Rev. Aaron Parsall-Myler, and Isenor, arrives at 7 am to make sandwiches every Tuesday and Friday. This Tuesday, the team made a whopping 450 sandwiches, a number they expect will continue to grow.
“Our aim is to reach families in need and we don’t know what that’s going to look like down the road as people’s finances get tighter,” says Isenor.
Isenor worked as a professional chef at the Shaw Conference Centre before entering ministry and is able to apply his experience preparing large quantities of food to plan menus and ensure the program complies with the professional and public safety practices mandated by Alberta Health Services for COVID-19. Brown reviews the production orders and informs the team of dietary restrictions. The program also provides gluten-free options. When the sandwiches are made they are stored in a commercial cooler that St. Augustine’s Parkland was able to purchase with reserve funds for Auggie’s Café.
Brown works with North Central CO-OP to guarantee the best price for quality ingredients, which the local grocer then delivers to the church. A packing crew of four volunteers forms an assembly line to fill lunch bags with a fresh sandwich, orange or apple, fruit juice and a granola bar. The team makes an effort to recognise birthdays whenever possible by adding a sweet treat. Auggie’s Café has a long existing relationship with Cobs Bread Bakery.
“One of our volunteers with knowledge of logistics and process helped us build an assembly line that can prepare 500 lunch bags within two hours or so,” says Brown.
The majority of lunches are delivered by a team of volunteer drivers, however the program also accommodates a limited number of walk-ins, as some people do not have a physical address. Drivers arrive by 10:30 am to pick up a delivery manifesto for the lunches they will deliver to a pre-determined distribution centre or homes in a designated region.
“This is an area that parish webmaster Ian Bowden and Alan Ellis really helped out with,” she says. “Ian designed our auggiescafe.org application process, and Alan planned the logistics of the driver/delivery process.”
People also have the option of calling a dedicated phone number, which is monitored by Dianne’s husband Jake. He will complete a lunch request on behalf of the caller who will then receive lunches for one month. Auggie’s partnership with the school division runs until June 26.
Brown says families have been grateful for Auggie’s Brown Bag Lunch program and many write comments on their application form.
“This is a blessing,” writes one mother. “I will be able to bring a surprise birthday lunch to my son. Thank you for making that possible.”
Organisers of the program have encountered a unique challenge: needing to limit volunteers in order to comply with two-metre social distancing regulations set by Alberta Health Services. As it is, keeping a hockey stick’s-length apart can be tricky for people who greatly enjoy each other’s company.
“We’ve been encouraging people to support the program at home through prayer and by getting the word out,” says Isenor.
“For me, the eucharist has always been about helping people in times of struggle,” he adds. “It’s funny how things always come around: chef of the eucharist at the altar and chef here at Auggie’s breaking bread with the community. This is a period of transition for us. In the future, when we are able to reconvene, Auggie’s Café will look very different.”
For more information and to register for the program, visit auggiescafe.org, or call 587.879.6154.