In this world nothing is certain except death and taxes, according to the oft-quoted statement attributed to Benjamin Franklin.
Geneva residents can add another certainty to that list: that a free and nutritious hot meal will be served every weekday and every holiday, courtesy of the Geneva Community Lunch Program.
More than 400,000 of these meals have been served since the 1983 inception of this program, which is operated by Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes in partnership with the Geneva Interfaith Council, said program coordinator Janet Kenny. The program’s basic mission, she said, is to provide free and nutritious hot meals to anyone in need in the greater Geneva area, and recipients do not have to provide proof of need.
"We’ve had homeless people come in, and we’ve directed them to Catholic Charities for (further) emergency assistance, and we’ve had a construction crew from across the street come in for a hot meal, but the majority of the diners are in need of nutrition," said Kenny, a member of Geneva’s Our Lady of Peace Parish.
Kenny moved into her coordinator’s post in March, when former coordinator Marge Shanahan retired after 10 years at the program’s helm. Now Kenny plans the meals and, with the help of a rotating staff of volunteers, prepares them using mostly donated food or food procured through Foodlink, a Rochester-based food bank. The meals are served between 11:45 a.m. and 12:15 p.m. weekdays and holidays at the First United Methodist Church, located at 243 Main St.
Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes kicked off the lunch program’s silver anniversary year Oct. 11 with a gathering of volunteers past and present. After taking a group photo, many of these volunteers then walked in the Miracle March for Hunger Relief, an annual five-mile walk sponsored by the Geneva Interfaith Council. Proceeds from the march were divided between the lunch program, the Geneva Food Pantry and other local hunger-relief ministries.
Catholic Charities and lunch-program leaders have planned several more events over the next few months to commemorate the program’s anniversary, including a volunteer-recognition event in April, said Ellen Wayne, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes.
"We’re really looking forward to the opportunity to recognize some of those forces that really had a great vision all those years ago," she said.
One of those visionaries, Kenny said, was Giovina Caroscio, who was executive director of Catholic Charities of the Finger Lakes from its inception in 1982 until 2003. In 1983 Caroscio asked an employee to assess whether there was a need for a lunch program in the Geneva area. The employee and a few volunteers decided to serve a trial meal, to which about 40 hungry people showed up. The program grew from there, Kenny said.
These days, lunch-program volunteers serve about 18,000 meals a year. The number of diners on any given day can range from a low of about 40 people to a high of about 100, Kenny said. Many senior citizens live in the area around the site of the lunch program, and it’s easier for them to walk to the program for a hot lunch than it is for them to hike across town to a local food pantry, she added.
The lunch program’s success over the past several decades is largely due to the Geneva community’s enthusiastic support, Wayne noted. Local businesses regularly donate food to the program and send teams of volunteers to staff it. Many of the local churches and religious organizations take turns providing volunteers on a rotating basis, Kenny said, as do several local schools, including St. Francis-St. Stephen School, DeSales High School and Hobart and William Smith Colleges.
Some of the program’s youngest supporters are the youngsters in Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and 4-H groups who conduct food drives for the lunch program. On the other end of the spectrum, many of the volunteers who prepare and serve the food are retired senior citizens, Kenny said. She and Wayne agreed such volunteers are the lifeblood of the program.
"We’d be lost without them," Wayne remarked.
Most of these volunteers seem to find working with the lunch program, and especially interacting with the diners, to be a rewarding experience, Kenny added. One volunteer wrote a note to Kenny and described the experience as "a wonderful way to meet and work with today’s saints and serve the community at the same time," said Kenny, who found this interesting because she doubts many program volunteers consider themselves saints.
"When you start working down here you realize you really are just another cog in the wheel. You’re part of something bigger," she said. "It’s a very humbling thing. You lose your ego here. People come together."