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Canton resident Betty Peckham at the Unitarian Universalist Church, where students are cleaning up after the weekly Campus Kitchens dinner. Photo: Zach Hirsch
Canton resident Betty Peckham at the Unitarian Universalist Church, where students are cleaning up after the weekly Campus Kitchens dinner. Photo: Zach Hirsch

Campus Kitchens: free food and companionship in Canton

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Campus Kitchens is a nation-wide program, run by college students, that feeds the needy. In Canton, St. Lawrence University students started their own branch a few years ago.

Every Monday, volunteers cook a meal and serve it for free. But people don't just come for the food.

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Looking around the dining room at the Unitarian Universalist church, you know this is a charity dinner, and you know you’re in a church.

But the feeling, the atmosphere – it’s more like a restaurant. You won’t find anyone sauntering along a buffet line here. Dinner guests are sitting patiently at their tables, with servers and bussers bustling all around them.

“Waiting for them to bring dinner in!” said longtime Canton resident Betty Peckham. 

Tonight, the main course is an impressively-sized chicken bacon burrito. But that's not what brought Betty here tonight. She comes just for the company.

“Because we live alone and it’s nice to have somebody to talk to when you’re eating," she said. "A number of the people I’m sure it’s a real help to them financially.” 

Every week, Betty and eight of her friends meet here to catch up with each other. She’s also here to visit with the student volunteers. They’re her pals, too.

“We’ve seen them every week for a couple of years now," said Lindsey Wyatt, a neuroscience major at St. Lawrence University and one of the dinner’s organizers. "So we really do know everyone that comes in. We have a personal relationship with them.”

When Lindsey says the volunteers get close with the guests, she means it.

"Yeah actually, I have a set of Canton grandparents," she said. "They actually call themselves my grandparents. And I went squaredancing with them a few times. I’ve also gotten homemade doylies for Christmas for the last two years, so. It’s just really nice having friends that you wouldn’t’ve met through any other circumstances.

“See now those people got their salads already! They look pretty good,” Betty said.

By “those people”, Betty means the big family on the other side of the room.  They’re a family of about eight. 

“Yeah they put on good meals. Been coming here for three years now," said Chris Burwell.

Chris is an older man who wears a John Deer cap. He leans in when speaks, at looks up at you through his thick glasses.

His food stamps were cut on November 1st, when a boost from the 2009 federal stimulus expired. The cutbacks affected the monthly food budget of some 47 million Americans. But Chris says he gets by, in part because of meals like this one.

“With these meals here, it helps out during the week," he said. "We eat our suppers here, and it feels like being with family.

“I mean you can’t buy a meal like this for under, maybe, 15 dollars,” said dairy farmer Debbie Whitehill.

Debbie is at the next table over. For her, coming to these meals is common sense – but, she says, not so much for other people.  

“Some people are ashamed to go here because they don’t want people to know what’s going on," she said. "But there’s nothing to be ashamed about. If somebody’s offering you a free meal, go for it! You get to meet people instead of sittin at home and maybe doin nothin.”

And that’s the recurring theme here – the company. This is not a feeding station for "the needy.” Here, they’re just people. And they want more people to come and join them.

The next dinner is tonight – and every Monday night.

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