Potluck for the poor celebrates 10 years of progress

Group serves 30,000 free meals every year in Downtown Eastside

Potluck Café and Catering wants to eradicate long lineups for food in the Downtown Eastside. The registered charity wants to build on its community economic development achievements that have provided jobs and up to 30,000 free and nutritious meals a year to residents of the Downtown Eastside.

Potluck celebrates 10 years of social enterprise success in Vancouver, Thursday, Sept. 29.

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The United We Can bottle depot for binners, the Portland Hotel Society and A Loving Spoonful, which provides free and nutritious meals to people living with HIV and AIDS, started the Potluck Café at 30 West Hastings St. in 2001.

Its organizers quickly realized they needed more money to sustain the café and started a catering company to generate revenue. Its clients include Shaw, Vancity and Vancouver Opera.

"Our mission goals really haven't changed, which is we really care about Downtown Eastside community employment, and Downtown Eastside community nutrition," said Heather O'Hara, executive director of Potluck.

Potluck employs up to 15 residents of the Downtown Eastside who may have problems with addiction, housing and mental health. They start at $10 an hour, receive benefits, life skills and safe food preparation training, and supports that include help finding stable housing, uniforms, laundry soap to wash their uniforms and food.

Chef Johnny Perry, who has been with Potluck for nine years, used to wonder how many employees would show up for work after welfare cheque day.

"Sometimes it takes months and years, but then to see them work at a corporate event or producing really nice platters for our clients, it just builds that self-confidence," he said. "It's challenging enough to try to pull that off in a food service environment. I've worked in many hotels and a lot of different establishments through the years, it's challenging on a good day, let alone you throw the social piece of it on top of that."

Potluck Café populates a storefront of the Portland Hotel and its tenants eat the bulk of the 30,000 free meals the restaurant serves each year.

The café hosts a community kitchen twice a month that sees a dietician, nutritionist, volunteers, and up to 20 members of the community prepare and enjoy a nutritious four-course meal.

Potluck shares its recipes for social enterprise success with local, national and international businesses and bodies interested in hiring inner city residents who have barriers to employment.

Potluck collaborates with other non-profits, healthcare professionals, policy makers and farmers on the Downtown Eastside Kitchen Tables Project, which aims to create jobs in the area and increase access to nutritious food.

"It's all about coming at the food system down here from a community economic development approach as opposed to the charity approach," O'Hara said.

Organizers are looking for ways to give the next generation of Downtown Eastside residents the means to sustain themselves.

"Potluck is a hidden gem," Perry said. "I always say to our management team here, we're always striving and looking forward, we should really stop and celebrate our daily successes because we can walk away at the end of the day and say I think we made a bit of a difference."

crossi@vancourier.com

Twitter: @Cheryl_Rossi

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