Cooking a sense of community at the monthly dinner

For sixteen years, a motley group has gathered every first Saturday of the month to enjoy food, poetry and friendship. Some come to fill their bellies, some come to pour out their spleen; but all come to share their hearts.

Lifeline Community Dinners are well known for being a mix of people from all walks of life sharing amazing meals, served for free, in an environment where everyone is free to be their authentic self. The dinners serve as an important means of addressing two critical issues: food insecurity and social isolation.

Addressing issues

This clever combination seems to be the secret sauce that keeps people coming back. Just before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the dinners reached a record attendance of 250 attendees – not bad, especially when you consider that word of mouth and a Facebook event announcement are the main means of advertising.

At a recent Lifeline dinner, several attendees shared what they liked about the event. Tyler Parker, a 25-year-old social worker, explains that Dinners function as a refuge for those looking for a safe place. “You can just be yourself, honestly. I know it sounds crazy, but it really is.” Linda Kolinski, a 60-year-old vendor for the Toledo Streets Newspaper, focuses on how the gatherings create a great opportunity for social bonding: “We eat, we make friends.”


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Those who are food or housing insecure know they can attend the dinners without fear of judgment or second-class treatment—and for many, that non-judgmental environment is part of the appeal. Adrian Matthews, a 61-year-old writer, praised the social message of Lifeline Dinners as a key motivator for his attendance. “It helps people show that they are recognized – that they are human beings and deserve the respect that is due to human beings.”

Humble beginnings

When Steve North arrived at the Collingwood Arts Center to attend a gathering of local poets in 2007, he was struck by the raw emotion on display. “Everyone was angry at the world and everyone and everything in it. They were so real and authentic,” North recalls. He knew this was a scene he wanted to be in, and soon began reading poetry with them every Tuesday.

As he gets to know them better, he learns that many have abandoned conventional work to pursue their creative passions—making several of them literally starving artists. Then North came up with a creative idea: What if we gave these people both an open mic and some food to keep them going? One fateful Saturday, he tested this idea by hanging a microphone in his living room and making enough chili for 100 people. The results of this first gathering led to the beginning of Lifeline Community Dinners.

Now every Saturday, North, assisted by several volunteers, hosts a big dinner at his home (or sometimes at other locations; the dinners have been held at thirteen different locations over the years). The live microphone is still an important element that allows attendees who are not used to being heard to share their thoughts.


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“We’re seeing that those who have a small voice in the larger community can bring it back to themselves and when they’re going to be heard — that there’s someone who thinks that what they have to say, regardless of their point of view, is worth hearing—and worth celebrating,” says North. Food for thought, indeed.

Lifeline Community Evenings are open to the public and run from 5.30pm every first Saturday of the month. For more information on the dinner venue and how to get involved, visit facebook.com/lifelinetoledo.

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