'This is what it’s all about!'
WAM uses a borrowed food truck to feed people in one of Saint John’s poorest neighbourhoods
By Gisele McKnight
“Food truck! Food truck!”
Those screams of delight greet a dedicated team of three as the Salvation Army emergency disaster response truck pulls up to the Carleton Community Centre on the Lower West Side of Saint John.
There is no emergency tonight, but there are dozens of hungry kids flocking to the food truck for supper — a supper they might not get elsewhere in this priority neighbourhood where poverty, single-parent families and unemployment are sadly the norm. Saint John was recently cited as having the highest child poverty rate in the country.
Feeding people is a passion of the Westside Anglican Mission. They do it every Sunday afternoon at their George’s Café. In fact, 51 weeks a year, this little mission of about 25 people feeds their neighbours.
And since September, their latest food mission has been literally on the streets. This is a partnership with the Salvation Army — using their food truck to bring a meal to those in need.
For the first few weeks, when the truck was not available, they used a mini-van, but the food truck is well-equipped with a stove, fridge, microwave, sink, prep space and serving window. It’s a 90-minute outreach that, on a recent evening, fed 90 people.
“About 90 per cent of the people coming to the window are children,” says Jeff Edison, who, with the Rev. Rob Salloum and Judy Mae Gallant, mans the truck each Wednesday evening.
The work, though, begins much earlier in the day with sandwich preparation — chicken salad, egg salad, ham and cheese, tuna and the hands-down favourite, bologna. Homemade cookies add to the meal, and when the sandwiches are gone, there are hot dogs.
Donations and willing hands come from the WAM congregation and its partner, Carleton Kirk United Church, where WAM and Rob are headquartered.
As evening falls, the truck pulls up at Queens Square West, overlooking the Saint John Harbour. Judy puts out a big box of winter hats and mittens, donated by the Salvation Army, for anyone who needs them. It isn’t long before kids and parents start coming.
“We’re definitely making relationships,” says Judy. “People recognize us.”
She points to an apartment building across the square: “We usually feed 10 people in that building.”
Judy makes a point of talking to every person who comes near, inviting them to take a sandwich and cookie. This is where Judy lives — and these are her neighbours. Do they need mittens, a winter coat, a hat? Judy makes sure to ask, because many are not dressed for the weather.
On this night, she has coat requests from one teenager and one woman. She’ll find and deliver them in the next few days.
Back in the food truck, almost all the pre-made bag lunches of sandwiches and cookies are gone, with the last ones going to a single working dad and his two children. It’s time to move on to the next stop — the parking lot at the Carleton Community Centre.
It’s just getting dark at the community centre, and technically, the children’s programs don’t start for another 45 minutes, but there are plenty of kids milling about already.
“They don’t go home because there’s no supper for them,” says Jeff, adding that some have probably been here since school ended a couple of hours earlier.
The hot dogs in the slow cooker are almost ready, and a line forms in wait. Jeff makes the hot chocolate. Tupperware containers filled with homemade goodies are opened and it’s supper time.
“Hands up, who wants hot chocolate?” asks Rob, and a half-dozen hands shoot into the air.
Some kids come back for seconds and thirds, but they’re never turned away. Rob want to try serving chili and grilled cheese sandwiches soon, but all this is still a bit new. Some weeks, they’ve had leftovers, which are given to Outflow Ministries, a nearby shelter, but tonight, they give out everything they’ve prepared.
While Judy is working the crowd, making sure they have what they need, and Rob is busy handing out hot dogs, it’s Jeff who’s working away quietly in the background. But when asked why he’s here, he has plenty to say.
“I love this,” he says. “I like talking to the kids. I live in this neighbourhood, and there are so many underprivileged kids who don’t have supper here.”
After almost an hour, the crowd is waning and the hot dogs are gone, but still a few more kids turn up, getting cookies and bottles of water. Tonight has been their busiest so far, and they expect in the coming weeks, as word travels, they’ll get even busier.
“It’s sort of a learning experience for us,” says Rob. “We’ve sensed what God is doing and are trying to catch up. The need is obvious.”
Rob always wears his collar, and even on this chilly night with the temperature around zero degrees, his coat is open.
“They recognize me,” he says. “They know who I am and what I stand for.”
Some of the kids know Rob from the ball hockey program WAM has been running after school. Others have met him at George’s Café or during their summer prayer walks.
“We’ve got street cred now,” he says, noting that only a few weeks before, he offered a sandwich and the answer was no. Then, recognition: ‘Hey wait! That’s Rob from ball hockey!’
As Rob is talking, a kid yells, ‘see you in church, Rob.’
“People have been coming to church as a result of floor hockey and this,” he says. “This truck fits in with the mission of the Mission. It’s quite literally a vessel for relationship-building.”
It was last winter that Rob’s wife, Jennifer, was musing over how to serve the community and said, ‘why can’t we make sandwiches and pass them out?’
“That went dormant for awhile, and then in June, I saw this van parked at Carleton Kirk. So I talked to them and gave them my card.”
That led to a meeting and the development of a partnership, and now the truck is theirs to use every Wednesday evening, barring a disaster elsewhere in the province.
It takes about $70 a week to run this outreach food program — $30 in gas to run the truck and equipment, plus food, although again, it’s WAM and Carleton Kirk United Church members who step up and donate. There is no fee to use the truck. It’s truly an ecumenical endeavour, with three different denominations pulling together.
So is this what Rob signed up for when he answered the call to become an Anglican priest?
“I never expected this, but it’s exactly what Jesus would be doing, and what he did,” he says. “I really enjoy this. This gives me life. This is what it’s all about, and I would do this every day of the week!”
Editor’s note: WAM is a mission that was once the Parish of West Saint John, an amalgamation of the parishes of Victoria and Carleton. Dissolved in 2015, it has no building, using worship space at the Mission to Seafarers facility and space at Carleton Kirk United for outreach and other events.