December 6, 2023

Food City

The Best Darn Food City Uou Can Get

Commercial kitchen at A Better Tent City means daily meals for community

Food and belonging co-ordinator Kelly-Lynne Schabl rings the dinner bell alerting residents of A Better Tent City that a hot, fresh-made lunch is now being served.

In minutes, several hungry people who live in the “tiny homes” just a few feet from the kitchen are queued at the counter with plates and utensils.

They watch as Big Jerk Smokehouse chef Kevin Thomas and a crew of volunteers from a home construction and renovation company serve up jerk turkey and chicken with a few Thanksgiving-themed fixings.

Schabl and Thomas are working in the new commercial kitchen at the facility, which is located on Ardelt Avenue straddling city property and that of the Waterloo Region District School Board.

Food preparation in the new building started early this summer with the 50 residents able to eat inside several weeks ago, according to Schabl.

Big Jerk Smokehouse chef Kevin Thomas serves up a traditional Jamaican meal at A Better Tent City (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

The tiny homes are celebrating a one-year anniversary this month. Schabl says the kitchen is a welcome addition that helps residents who otherwise would be “living rough” and homeless. 

Thanks to the late Ron Doyle and family, the original tiny-home facility was founded at the site of the former Lot 42 before moving to the current location; the family funded the new restroom and shower facilities.

“Before this kitchen, we were able to cook residents a hot meal, but there was no place for them to eat so they took their meals into a tent outside. Having this space now makes it as welcoming as possible,” Schabl said.

In the new facility, Schabl takes donated ingredients, including a weekly delivery from the Food Bank of Waterloo Region, and prepares meals for the residents. She says the new facility has made a big difference.

The volunteer project-lead on the facility’s construction was Alair Homes, a North American company with a regional office in Waterloo.

Volunteers with Alair Homes serve up lunch to residents at A Better Tent City (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Alair co-ordinated dozens of volunteers and the expertise of several local trades in order to get power, water and shower facilities, and sewage infrastructure to the 45 cabins, or tiny homes, at the site.

The main building is essentially three conjoined school portables that house the kitchen, restrooms and an area with tables, chairs and couches that might be described as akin to a university commons area.   

For his part, Thomas donates his time, staff and some ingredients from his Big Jerk commercial kitchen once a week to cook for the residents.

Over the past couple of years, he had delivered hot food to the community for distribution to residents; now he serves those residents from the on-site kitchen.

The lunch of jerk turkey and jerk chicken was accompanied by “rice and peas,” pineapple-mango sauce, slaw and corn bread; the meal was sponsored by Alair.

Jerk turkey, jerk chicken and rice and peas prepared by chef Kevin Thomas from Big Jerk Smokehouse (Andrew Coppolino/CBC)

Thomas and his mother, Lucinda Nicholas, often serve the meal at A Better Tent City together. It’s a labour of love and something his father, the late Jim Nicholas, did regularly at Caribbean Cuisine, a once popular downtown Kitchener restaurant the family owned years ago.

“This is something dad would always do. At closing time, he would give meals to the homeless. We’re carrying on what he did at this location now,” Thomas said.

He cooks a lunch for the community once a week. Otherwise, Schabl covers lunch and dinner Monday to Friday. There is a self-serve table for morning coffee, juice and toast; other organizations will visit on weekends to prepare a hot meal for residents.

The reception to the food has been positive, according to Schabl. 

“We ask residents what they like and what we can prepare for them,” she said. “I’m trying to open up that dialogue. When possible, we plan ahead with our ingredients to make dishes that they say they want to eat.”

A number of residents gave the meal a smile and the thumbs-up: one resident, Dragon, said he just loves all the meals.

“The jerk chicken is really good.” 

Another resident, Nadine Green, who is also an on-site supervisor, said that the well-rounded meals have opened the eyes of some residents as to what freshly prepared food, including vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower, can be.

“We like how the meals are changed up every night and different,” said Green. “One guy actually said to me, ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but I actually like salad.’ Before, he said he wouldn’t eat salad.”

Especially with the holiday season approaching, the staff at A Better Tent City are urging people in Waterloo Region to make donations to area food banks. In these uniquely and particularly difficult times, food banks themselves are struggling to keep up with the demand for their services.