Feeding the hungry in Northwest Philly and beyond

Neil Kantner arrived at the Keystone House’s kitchen around 6 a.m. Wednesday, like he does most weekday mornings.

He is the chef who regularly prepares dozens of meals for the Chestnut Hill Meals on Wheels program. On this day, he’s putting together 40 trays of roasted turkey (with a trade-secret sauce), mashed sweet potatoes, brussel spouts and more.

Before long, his sous-chef Zack arrives to help affix the delivery lids. They include notations of special requests like vegetarian, no corn or beans (for a recipient with digestive concerns) and no fish for Willie.

Not long after Zack’s arrival, volunteers file into the Stenton Avenue facility to load up their thermal delivery bags so several dozen elderly, shut-in or needy people will have a healthy, “as non-processed as possible,” fresh meal to eat yet again.

Kantner thought back to the days when he was making an average of 20 meals a day and takes pride in the fact that that number has just about doubled.

“People say they like our food, so that feels good,” Kantner said. “It’s rewarding to know that if someone in your family was in need, there’s someone out there willing to help. I don’t know what they would do if they didn’t have this, maybe eat once at McDonald’s and go hungry the rest of the day?”

Drawing attention to a worthy cause

The preparation-to-delivery process was no different than other days when meals find delivery wheels outside the Keystone House, a elder and hospice facility on the 8700 block of Stenton Ave.

However, the attention drawn to it was unusual in that Wednesday was the 7th Annual March For Meals Campaign event, which is designed for city and state officials and community leaders to join with the day-in day-out volunteers.

Among those volunteers were Kristin Vongvixai and her son Julien. It was the fourth grader’s first time participating (he was on Spring Break) but mom explained, after loading a cooler into the pristine trunk of her Camry, that she has been helping out for about a year.

“Giving money to charity is good, but it’s easy. We decided to do more this year, and this is a perfect way to help out,” said Vongvixai.

She echoed other volunteers’ sentiments that it’s about more than just delivering food, but building relationships with those who might not get to interact with people very often.

Laurene Topping, a board member of the group, started as a driver six years ago. It was something she could do with a toddler in tow, she noted.

“He ended up having quite a few surrogate grandparents, the Mayor of the retirement communities,” Topping recounted of the experience, noting that one Meals on Wheels recipient “always had a cookie hidden away to give to [her son].”

Councilwoman encourages others to help

In addition to Keystone – where Eighth District City Councilwoman Cindy Bass arrived and spoke with the chef and volunteers – events were scheduled for MANNA in Center City, and Aid For Friends in Northeast Philadelphia.

“This is obviously a very important program in our community. It’s inspirational to see the volunteers here,” Bass said urging Eighth District residents to “learn more about it, ideally as volunteers. The recipients would appreciate seeing a new face, saying hello, connecting with individuals in their community.”

Part of the message of the day, in Bass’ estimation, was for Philadelphians to pay attention to how much food is wasted in light of how much hunger exists in the city.

Nutter delivers a meal

Indeed, food and the needy has been a hot-button issue in the city of late, in the wake of Mayor Michael Nutter’s “Indoor Feeding Policy” as it pertains to the homeless.

After delivering a meal to Lillian Kanner and her special-needs daughter, Nutter spoke at the Klein-Jewish Community Center in Northeast Philadelphia as part of the day’s events.

He has come under, and returned, fire when the issue turns to a theory that the homeless are being hidden away as the Barnes Museum prepares to open on the Parkway, near a years-old outdoor-feeding program.

The Barnes issue

Bass was asked for her take on the issue at the Keystone House.

“It’s disturbing that it’s happening so close to the Barnes and Rodin museums. It does feel like they’re bringing in new people and they don’t want the problem to be seen,” she said, noting that some of those who get fed outdoors via programs near the Free Library Central Branch are newly homeless because of the poor economy.

“This issue can not be swept away,” Bass continued. “These are real people with real problems. I’m not so sure this was very well thought out by the administration.”

While Wednesday wasn’t about feeding the homeless at Keystone, Kantner’s message as the meals made their way out into the community seemed to address the overall issue.

“Nobody,” he declared, “should go hungry.”

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