Listen Dinners Draw Crowd
Dining Hall Proves Popular
"I haven't missed a supper since it came down here," said Kathy Duguie, of Lebanon, N.H., on Sept. 26, 2013, who stopped going to the Listen Community Dinners for a time when they were held in several Upper Valley churches. " I see all my friends down here," she said. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Wilbur Sturtevant, of Tilton, N.H. eats dinner with friends in the Listen Community Dining at River Point Plaza in White River Junction, Vt., on Sept. 26, 2013. Attendance has increased 39 percent since Listen moved the dinners from several churches in the Upper Valley to the new complex. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Tyler Slack, 2, cringes from a spoonful of applesauce offered by his mother Ashley, of Lebanon, N.H., while trying to hold out for a cup cake at the Listen Community Dinner in White River Junction, Vt., on Sept. 26, 2013. "It's a nice friendly place," said Ashley Slack, who attends the dinners with her son, boyfriend John Cadogan, left, and daughter Nevaeh, 4, left. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Listen Community Services serves between 60 and 100 people each night during the week in its dining hall at the River Point Plaza in White River Junction. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
White River Junction — Jim Vail walked cheerfully along the serving line, filling up his tray with nutritious items — something he said is hard to come by at home.
A salad of green leaf lettuce, carrots and tomatoes accompanied by a generous helping of applesauce, meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans.
“It’s really good,” said Vail, of Lebanon, while he dug into his meal at a Listen Community Services dinner late last week. “I eat a healthy, more well-balanced diet here,” he added.
An average of 100 people have been joining Vail at Listen’s weeknight meals since the Listen at River Point Plaza Community Dinner Hall opened on July 3. Before the new hall, which holds 130 people, the dinners were held at area churches and typically drew 60 to 70 people each night.
Vail, who has been a regular at the dinners for years, said the free meals help him eat better, and ease his financial burden.
“My budget is real slim, so for me, it’s a necessity,” Vail said. “It’s a heavenly thing.”
Some characterized the meals as a lifeline.
“It means one meal a day,” said Mathieu Cusson, a former Wilder resident who said as of last week he had spent 112 straight nights in a tent. Cusson said he regularly walks the 40 minutes to the dining hall nestled by Route 4 and the Connecticut River, just over the bridge from West Lebanon.
The 2,500-square-foot dining hall, part of the 10,600-square-foot Listen at River Point complex, has views of Lyman Point Park and provides a consistent location for the meals. Before, the dinners rotated among churches in White River Junction and Lebanon and the Mascoma Senior Center in Canaan. (Dinner is still served on Monday night in Canaan.)
Ray Pecor, the food programs manager behind Listen’s dinner services, said having a regular, easily accessible location has been a driving factor behind the increase in diners.
“A lot of people didn’t come to the churches because they were smaller,” Pecor said on Wednesday. “People have anxieties and issues with big crowds, and those people weren’t coming because of the feeling like you are in a soup can. Now the place is bigger and people feel more confident that they can get a place away from everybody if that’s what they want.”
For some, it’s the opposite.
“These dinners mean that I get to come and have a meal five days a week and visit with my friends,” said Lebanon resident Steve Perkins, who arrives early to help set up. “I just like the company it provides.”
In addition to camaraderie, there is often need, according to Listen Executive Director Merilynn Bourne, who said cut backs to state and federal assistance programs have affected peoples’ marginal incomes.
“They are using the community dinners to bridge that gap,” Bourne said.
The Listen Center program isn’t the only one in the area seeing a surge in patrons. Since July, the Claremont Soup Kitchen has seen its number of nightly guests double, to about 130.
“We gradually started seeing an increase ever since the spring,” said soup kitchen director Jan Bunnell.
Over the last three months she said, the nightly dinner turnout has skyrocketed, causing the dining space on Central Street to become chaotic.
“They come in and there are long lines,” she said. “It’s been like a frenzy, people pushing people out of the way to get stuff.
“Oh my God, have we seen an increase. It’s unbelievable,” said Bunnell, who like Bourne attributed the influx to cut backs in funding for assistance programs.
Bourne said Listen is able to provide the meals free of charge because of the funds generated through its four thrift stores, which generate $1.5 million in revenue annually, and the nonprofit’s ongoing campaign for donor support.
Guests take a seat at a numbered table and, much like a bingo drawing, numbered chips are pulled and the individuals at the corresponding table head to the serving area.
Another perk to the new hall, Pecor said, was the community dinner program doesn’t have to work around wedding or funeral receptions at the churches.
The program has 51 cook teams, comprised of 285 volunteers, that prepare meals ranging from tuna noodle casserole to pork chops. Pecor said 20 percent of the cook teams bring all of the fixings with them to prepare the meals, 10 percent bring part of fixings and Listen provides the rest.
“They come in around 3 p.m. and prepare it,” Pecor said. “We don’t make foods out of boxes. They cook it straight from scratch.”
Helping to provide that home-cooked feel, Pecor said, is the fact that meals are now served on real dinnerware, instead of styrofoam.
Robert Peterson, who attends regularly and volunteers at the dinners, said the nightly meals help him financially.
“We don’t have a lot of food at home — sometimes we do, but sometimes we don’t,” he said during Friday’s dinner.
Peterson said he is a stay-at-home dad for his 14-year-old special needs son. His wife, Nancy, works outside of their Hartford home.
“Coming here, I’ve created some new friends,” he said. “It’s nice to know that you have other people that care about you and how you are doing.”
Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3248.