Church dinners provide students in need with free home-cooked meals

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In a city with skyrocketing costs of living, cash-strapped students don’t often hear the word ‘free’. A local church, however, is out to change that.

The Emmanuel Baptist Church, located on Cedar Hill X-road, just a 14 minute walk away from the UVic Bookstore, has been offering free dinners on Tuesday nights from 6 to 7 p.m. for students since 2004.

“We’re not looking for publicity,” said Catherine Morris who runs the church dinners. “We really do love having students into dinner. To me, it’s like having a party every week.”

The dinners are crucial for students who need a home-cooked meal, miss home, or want to meet new people also seeking a free meal.

Emmanuel Baptist Church, pictured, hosts free dinners every Tuesday night for students. Photo by Belle White, photo contributor

Emmanuel Baptist Church started offering the meals after church member Betty Ristow, who had a student living with her, asked what the church could do that would be meaningful in lives of university students.

She decided to host a home-cooked meal where the student could bring her friends and have a safe place to relax and eat — igniting the Tuesday student dinner tradition.

Riley van der Linden is a fourth year history student who has been attending the dinners for a few years. She believes the popularity of the dinners goes to show the difficulty students have in finding affordable food in Victoria.

“Students are poor and it’s a free, home-cooked meal with multiple courses and so many options, and they have gluten-free and vegetarian and vegan options as well. Everything is labelled. They make sure that there’s food for everyone,” van der Linden says. “I think it just goes to show how expensive it is to live in Victoria . . . if a free meal is something that is this wanted.”

But she also acknowledges the social aspect is a large part of why people make their way to the church every Tuesday.

“I can afford to pay for my own food that one day a week. I don’t need to go to the church dinner. But it’s also a social event. I don’t have to cook food, I don’t have to do dishes. I can go and study and hang out with friends and eat food and then go home and not have to worry about it for this little while,” she says. “It’s just handy.”

Initially, around 80-100 people attended the dinner each week, but as more students spread the news about a free dinner, the attendance started to increase.

The Tuesday night event brought in an average of about 400 people for each of the 19 dinners in the 2016-17 school year, and Morris encourages people to show up early to guarantee a spot.

“We have about 270 seats we can fill without violating fire regulations, so once those are filled, the lineup has to start. The lineup starts, and those who aren’t seated probably had to wait until 6:20 for for dinner, so they may be waiting 5:30 to 6:20 for a meal,” she says. “But still people are in good spirits.”

Preparation for the dinner takes all week. Organizers shop, plan, prep the church, and donations from the community help to fuel the meals.

Students line up for a meal at the Emmanuel Baptist student dinner. Photo provided by Ernie Fraser

The church gets their food through donations from church members, Thrifty’s Foods, Portofino Bakery, Cobb’s Breads, and the Root Cellar Green Grocer.

The first dinner of the fall term is September 19, and they will run weekly until November 28. The dinners start up again in the winter term on January 16, ending March 27, with the final two dinners including open mic performances to celebrate the end of the term.

Despite being hosted in a church, there isn’t a lot of preaching or church talk used to try and change a student’s religious background or to influence them to attend church regularly.

“We do say a short non-denominational grace, but we find that nobody minds that,” Morris says.

Morris says that the organizers don’t even consider religion at all when it comes to hosting the meal.

“We don’t call it ‘church dinner’ — we call it ‘student dinner.’ Students call it church dinner,” she laughs.

But whatever you do call it, a free meal and the chance to meet new people is clearly a huge hit for starving students.

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