Everything is the same, nothing is the same

Community Chef Monica Bettson has been at The Stop since 2011. She’s pictured above, second from right, in a photo from 2013.


I’d like to share with you my experiences over the past few weeks — weeks that have felt like the longest I’ve ever spent during my years in The Stop’s kitchen.

On a normal day, I work with five volunteers to prepare a free plated lunch for up to 200 people. These volunteers are people from the surrounding community and beyond, with an immense variety of experiences and backgrounds. I get to know them well, and I look forward to seeing each and every one of them: hearing about their lives, the challenges and the joys, and simply chatting about daily life as we work around the same kitchen island.

But this is the new normal: In order to be as safe and efficient as possible, there are only two volunteers in the kitchen. We’ve had to ask all those who have health issues, who are caregivers, who are over 70, who have traveled, and who live with those who have traveled to stay home. Our small crew now prepares over 350 takeout meals every day, and these numbers are rising fast.

I miss those who can’t be here. Our volunteers are such a vital and important part of our work at The Stop, and I know they too are missing us and the important work that they do.

And yet, the volunteers who are here continue to work hard, bring their joy and perseverance into the space, and share their time and talents with the community. I am so, so grateful for this.

Post-pandemic: preparing takeout meals in The Stop’s kitchen.

On a normal day, our 1884 Davenport location is a vibrant, bustling hub—not just in our Drop-in and Food Bank space, but also in the back where our advocacy, administration, and fundraising teams work. When I start my morning, I take time to chat with my coworkers. We enjoy coffee together in the staff kitchen, maybe share a pastry that someone brought from home.

Every day, we eat lunch together, we foster deep friendships, and we support each others’ work. If I’m short on hands in the kitchen, all I have to do is ask and folks will come running to help roll out pitas, fold dumplings, or tearfully chop onions.

The new normal: just like our volunteers, many staff have had to stay at home. Those of us who can remain are working on restricted hours to limit our social contact and preserve our health. I miss my coworkers and the support they provide. The office is now quiet and forlorn, full of empty desks.

And yet, my co-workers who work from home are constantly organizing from behind the scenes, and sending me messages of support and love.

We continue to work as a team, even from a distance.

Pre-pandemic: The Stop’s Drop-in

On a normal day, my favourite morning routine is checking in on the Drop-in. I pop my head in before I start cooking, saying “Hi” to a few regulars. Folks are sitting and enjoying coffee, playing a game of chess, reading a newspaper. Without fail, Grace, a resident of the upstairs apartment building, will wheel in backwards on her walker and yell across the room “What’s for lunch?” Providing these spaces for community and connection is at the core of everything we do.

The new normal: The Stop’s Drop-in is empty. Instead of welcoming people through our doors, we’ve had to set up tables at the entrance and are asking folks to line up outsidespaced apart by chalk lines on the groundas we hand out coffee and takeout meals.

We’re trying hard to maintain a feeling of dignity and normalcy in this new arrangement. My colleague Nick still greets people with their names and a warm “How are you?” as he prepares their coffee. Often, their response is “Not great,” but I can see the gratitude in their eyes to be honestly asked this question, and to know that we’re able to help if they want it. I think that all of us are looking for this human connection right now.

But there still are so many things missing. There are no plates and forks anymore. No fresh salad bar, no fruit cart, no herbal iced tea, no mending circle or community choir, no karaoke or craft cafes, no weekly movie or bingo.

When I go outside to receive a delivery, a man sits on a piece of cardboard next to the door. He’s got his laptop out, and he’s using our Wi-fi. He asks if he can come in and use the washroom, and I have to explain that I can’t let anyone in the building. He asks me kindly, “Put yourself in my shoes. Where am I supposed to go to the bathroom?” I understand, but still have to say no.

This week has been full of heartbreaking answers of “No.”

September 2019: Stop staff and volunteers at our annual Good Food for All Festival

And yet, some fundamental things have stayed the same.

The Stop continues in our mission to provide nutritious, local, culturally appropriate food every day. We continue to offer food bank hampers full of high quality, fresh food. And community members continue to care for each other by delivering meals to folks in the upstairs apartments who are unable to come downstairs.

But a feeling has followed me around all week; a tightness in my chest, a constant cloud over my head. I’m realizing this feeling is grief, a sort of ambiguous grief. The possibility of tangible losses of friends and family, the changes in my community and in my work, as well as an uncertainty of what the future holds.

I have tried to name this grief and anxiety, and bring myself back to the present, to ground myself with tangible things I am thankful for. Here is a list:

My colleagues who are still at The Stop: the ones who sit next to me, dazed at the end of the day, checking in with each other and echoing each other’s feelings of anxiety and fear.
My coworkers who are working from home, arranging pick-ups of food and sending us simple “How are you doing?” texts.
The service industry workers who’ve dropped off an endless stream of high-quality food for us to cook with and distribute in the community.
The volunteers who continue to come in, and the volunteers who stay home and email and text us words of encouragement.
The neighbours who have dropped off take-out containers, diapers, and formula.
All the generous people who have supported us through monetary donations, and ensured we can continue to do the vital and important work we do.

I believe that the true measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable.

As our Executive Director Leigh Godbold recently wrote, “Hand-outs of food have never been the answer to poverty, and they certainly aren’t now. As The Stop continues this vital work, we’ll keep raising our voices to ensure that food charity doesn’t become the new normal, and we’ll keep pushing for more resources and stronger protections for our most vulnerable community members.”

I am grateful that The Stop is fighting to make sure this “new normal” doesn’t stick.

In the coming weeks and months, I hope that you too can name your feelings of anxiety, fear and grief, and then I hope you can find meaning for your grief.

I encourage you to connect with and support the most vulnerable in our city by donating your time, your energy, and your resources, and to come together to demand something more than charity. It’s more important than ever for us to look after each other  especially those who have always been the most at-risk in our community.

After all, everything is the same, and nothing is the same.


Hear more about Monica’s personal story, and The Stop’s good food philosophy, in this 2019 video.