Before the pandemic, the doors of LISTEN’s Community Dinner Hall opened six days a week to welcome anyone in need of a warm dinner. Inside the handsome facility by the bridge linking White River Junction and West Lebanon, each guest was treated to a three-course meal, served on real plates and cutlery and with cloth napkins. “It’s wonderful to see the different friendships and conversations that come about from having those nightly meals,” said LISTEN executive director Kyle Fisher. “Some folks need that food because of a disability or an inability for whatever reason to cook for themselves. Some people are homeless, and that’s their only way of getting a warm cooked meal. And, you know, other folks come just for the conversation.”
COVID-19 threw a wrench in the works, initially. It became no longer safe for the cooking to be done by alternating teams of volunteers, many of whom were seniors. Funding became a challenge when LISTEN’s thrift stores, which account for 80% of their revenue, had to temporarily close. The need for the dinners, however, was greater than ever.
Overcoming these challenges has taken some ingenuity, as well as support from the community that LISTEN has always been the first to help. First, a grant from Upper Valley Strong allowed LISTEN to redeploy four warehouse and trucking employees as paid kitchen staff. One employee, who had worked previously as a cook at Jessie’s Restaurant in Hanover, has taken charge. “He’s now got his staff all trained up to be his sous-chefs,” joked Kyle.
That team is currently producing 200 to-go meals a day, up from an average of 100 meals served before the crisis. Some of those are picked up by the Upper Valley Response Team, a grassroots mutual aid network dedicated to working with COVID-19 relief initiatives. They are then brought to White River Junction, where folks experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity are currently being housed in hotels using state vouchers.
The effort speaks to the possibilities when different service organizations work together. “The Upper Valley is just so different than anywhere else that I’ve seen,” said Kyle. “It’s an extremely tight-knit community where folks communicate and ensure that all the resources that are available get to the people who really need them.”
Moving forward, LISTEN’s services, including their community dining service, will remain essential. If you are able, make a donation to help bridge the financial gap until the thrift stores can fully reopen and ensure that LISTEN is able to keep providing support to those who need it.
By Henry Allison. Pictured: from left, LISTEN employees Robert Broadwell, James Hutchins, and Jason Stauffer-Laurie prepare take out dinners. Meals can be picked up to-go Monday through Saturday from 5-5:30 at the LISTEN Community Dinner Hall, located at 42 Maple Street in White River Junction, Vermont. More information, along with the menu for June, can be found here.