541 Eatery and Exchange is a restaurant and Christian ministry located in downtown Hamilton, Ontario. By providing affordable and high-quality food and drink, as well as a place to hang out and socialize, 541 has always connected people from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. Since COVID-19, those connections look different but the ministry’s focus hasn’t changed.
“We talk a lot about family here,” says Danielle Steenwyk-Rowaan, one of the Front of House Managers and a former columnist with Christian Courier. “The big harvest table in the middle of our restaurant is kind of a living metaphor of people who can come together across barriers of various sorts. That can’t happen in the same way now, but we still see people coming together.”
Since March 16th the restaurant has been closed. However 541 Eatery and Exchange continues to provide an essential service to its neighbourhood, both in providing food for people and in educating its clientele about the pandemic.
Now, six days a week, 541 serves bagged lunches to roughly 75 people per day. With three rotating teams of three people each, they serve fresh and handmade quality food to anyone who needs it.
“We want the people on the edges to still get the best,” says Executive Director, Sue Carr, “not just the leftovers. We would never serve something we wouldn’t take home for our families.”
Despite their closure, “the community has been incredible supportive with donations and support,” says Carr. For instance, they’ve had many donations from suppliers during this pandemic: milk cartons, coffee, yogurt, apples, artisan cheeses, sourdough bread and more. “People say things like, ‘This is the highlight of my day,’ when picking up their lunches.”
Carr, who is also pastor to a church congregation that meets at 541, explains that it took some adjusting to get people used to the new system of standing in line outside of the restaurant and picking up their food over a table and across the door. Community members are no longer able to come in and rest, use the washroom or connect with volunteers the way they used to. But the staff and volunteers at 541 are still able to offer brief moments of connection.
Danielle Steenwyk-Rowaan says it is important to “check in with our folks. 541 is special because we have so many regulars that we know by name and we know their situations and they have a rapport with us and vise versa.” The staff and volunteers know the kinds of foods their regulars like, joke with them, ask them how they are doing. “There are still people we haven’t heard from in this time, and those names are on our minds and hearts.” For lower income, street involved or homeless people, these are particularly precarious times.
Another important need 541 is meeting during the pandemic is education through conversation. “The way that you and I get information through our smart phones,” Carr says, “is not open to many people because the places where they would get wifi, like libraries, are no longer open. They can’t come in and read the newspaper any more. . . A lot of people at first didn’t have a clue [what was happening].”
Steenwyk-Rowaan tells about a regular who collects Ontario Disability Support who recently passed her a $10 bill through the door. “He doesn’t have a lot to live on. . . That exchange is really the heart of our vision here, to have this place where everyone can contribute and everyone can receive and some of the walls are levelled down a bit. It’s beautiful when that can continue to happen.
“People see this as their place, so I’m really glad that we haven’t just closed up and left them to their own devices, that we’re still living into the idea of the exchange as much as we can during this time.”