Written by Aidan Wood, Canisius High School, Buffalo
St. Vincent de Paul is Lifting the Standard for Charitable Services with Fresh and Tasty Food
At the intersection of downtown Buffalo, the Masten Park, and the Elmwood Village, is a charitable dining room which has distinguished itself in recent years. Since the manager of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul dining room, Katy Brace, took her position around six years ago, she has worked with upper management and to implement new initiatives and partnerships to provide high quality food, a better meal experience, and better food for clients to take home. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is a global Catholic charity that has been in operation for nearly 200 years. The Society has partnered with local farms, the UB dental school, and Wegmans, and has set the precedent for a paradigm shift in charitable food services. These efforts are part of the Society’s goal to provide for those in need with dignity and humility.
Located on Main Street, between Bryant and Summer, the St. Vincent de Paul Society has an externally inconspicuous and unremarkable white building. However, it functions as a thrift shop, a charitable dining room, and a warehouse for donated furniture to be distributed to anyone with a demonstrated need. The inside of the dining room is a stark contrast from the ordinary outside. The floors are shining and clean and the walls are newly painted with white and blue, the Society’s colors. The tall ceilinged hall is lined with folding tables laden with seasonally themed table cloths and vases of flowers. The kitchen is well-equipped with industrial sized stainless steel appliances and counters lined with well organized cooking utensils and spices. Simply by appearance, the dining room betrays the soup kitchen stereotype of unkempt disorganization and inefficient operation. Katy Brace notes, “First, we changed the kitchen around to make it more functional, bigger tables, and a bigger workspace.” She says that with the help of major donations, the Society was able to redo the floor and purchase tablecloths. “We try to make it feel a little more comfortable for people when they come in.” Brace says the reorganization is intended to create a safe and embracing environment for clients. The dining room has made major steps to improve dining options and provide fresh food and ingredients for clients when they leave after their meal is finished.
Meals typically include a healthy meat and vegetables with a chosen dessert on the side. Although almost no meal is the same, some include meatloaf with roasted potatoes and vegetables, or chicken with sautéed kale and slaw – often using ingredients which are sourced locally.
The Society’s effort to improve food quality has led to increased partnerships according to Brace who says, “We’ve also teamed up with local farmers. Porter Farms is an organic farm outside of Batavia. They come in all summer once a week and bring fresh produce and we set it up on the back tables.” The Society gives clients instructions on how to wash and prepare any produce that they have questions about.
Will is a long time volunteer for Saint Vincent de Paul and a dedicated one. For last eight years, Will has come in nearly every day the dining room has been open to volunteer. He’s a tall, burly man who looks like he could be a bouncer. In the dining room, he has a similar job as the meal token distributor by the door. Will first came to the dining room as a client when he was down on his luck and since then has come back as a volunteer when he got back on his feet. In his time as a volunteer, he’s seen the reorganization of the dining room and he notes how the new rules have led to a better experience for clients and volunteers. Committed volunteers like Will are the backbone of the functionality of the dining room and they have only amplified the reorganization efforts.
Another partner is the UB Dental Smile Team which comes in once a month. “They’ll donate some of their time and set up a table in the front hallway where they hand out toothbrushes, toothpaste, dental floss and a hygiene packet, or anything that anybody needs to know about hygiene.” The effort is a great help to the many who have limited access to dental products or are in need of information on dental hygiene. Brace is careful to note, however, the humility of the operation. The Society is completely based upon donations and the work of volunteers and their aim is simply to bring dignity and health to the clients who arrive in need. That is the core of their mission and their service. If you’d like to get involved with St. Vincent De Paul, learn how here.