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Sunday afternoon and fried chicken brings a full house to Face to Face, which provides a free meal at St. Vincent's Catholic Church in Germantown.,

It’s lunchtime on a Sunday afternoon and Sharon Hope is sitting with her son Hunter, 7, at a table where every seat is taken. In fact, all of the Dining Room’s 88 seats at St. Vincent’s Catholic Church in Germantown are occupied. “It’s not always this crowded,” Hope said. “I just came for the cake and free Wi-Fi.”

Hope moves her legs out of the way as a volunteer wheels a cart filled with chocolate and red velvet cake down the narrow aisle, then looks around the room and shrugs. “Word must have gotten around that it’s fried chicken day,” she said.

St. Vincent’s, an old Catholic Church located on Price Street just off Germantown Avenue, dominates the block.

Inside, Face to Face, a group that started out as a soup kitchen in 1985, now rents the building from the church to provide a hot meal, as well as various social services. People come from all over the Germantown area and crowd the corridor inside the church hall to wait for a warm meal in what they all call the “Dining Room.”

The large room with high ceilings and yellow walls is used for most of their other services, including the art studio, the writing group, and the after- school program.  Artwork done by adult visitors from Face To Face covers the walls in the dining room and hallway.

Finding a sense of home

“If you come in here on any given day, what you’re going to find is people who have found a sense of home,” said Mary Kay Meeks-Hank, executive director of Face To Face. Meeks-Hank, a former sociology professor at nearby La Salle University, initially got involved with the organization as a volunteer for the meal program. “I always talked the talk as a teacher, but here I have to walk the walk,” she said.

At Face to Face, “walking the walk” means that Meeks-Hank is responsible for securing the funds to keep things running. “As peoples’ needs grow, I hope we can offer the accompanying services,” Meeks-Hank said.

For now, Face to Face is closed Wednesdays and Thursdays, but it aims to be open seven days a week. It also aims to offer social work, legal advice and health screenings to the roughly 500 people who are served by the meal program every Friday through Monday from noon until 2 p.m.

Every day, however, Face To Face’s Director of Social Services Tara Monihan says that she struggles to get people in the door for the other services offered. “The meal is the main focus; everything else is secondary,” she said.

Aiming to provide healthy food

Support staff are concerned that the foods served, most of them contributed by volunteers, are not always the healthiest. Besides popular menu items like fried chicken, other food options include canned fruits and vegetables, and processed foods high in sugar and trans-fats.

A recent plan has the goal to improve the nutrition of the food served at Face To Face.  Barbara Grosshauser, a registered nurse and public health professor at La Salle, says that the biggest challenge affecting charitable organizations such as Face to Face is the poor nutrition of the food served. “The visitors are thrilled because they have something to eat, but we should get them the right things to eat,” she said. Nutrition problems like this are commonplace at food pantries in the area; a study conducted by the Center for Disease Control found that Philadelphia has the highest obesity rate and poverty rate of America’s ten largest cities.

In order to help solve the urban nutrition problem, Face to Face is teaming up with La Salle’s Neighborhood Health and Nutrition Project. This initiative includes a partnership between La Salle and the Fresh Grocer, as well as 14 other food pantries and church-run meal programs in the city.

Like many low-income areas, Germantown is largely cut off from fresh foods. Infill Philadelphia, a group dedicated to reducing poverty and hunger, estimates that low-income neighborhoods have 30% fewer grocery stores per capita than higher income neighborhoods. “We’re hoping to establish a system to improve the nutritional health of La Salle’s neighborhood,” said Tom Wingert, the Neighborhood Health and Nutrition Project’s manager. “Our project has a long term goal of providing free and healthy foods.”

Despite the health issues challenging Face to Face, it serves a real need in the community, according to those who volunteer there.

Face to Face intern Jessica Orapallo, a senior social work major from Northfield, N.J., has been working with the group since September of 2012. She says that her experiences with the visitors of Face to Face have opened her eyes to the everyday things she took for granted. “It’s amazing to see the interactions between everyone, and so empowering to be a part of giving something back,” she said. 

Face to Face may not be able to solve of its visitors’ problems, but the organization offers each visit the kind of respect that can be hard to find. “On any given day, you might have an in-depth conversation or work with 15 different people. It really varies,” Orapallo said. “The difference at Face to Face is that we have ongoing relationships with our visitors, on a first-name basis. They don’t necessarily get that at many places.”

“Our intervention can actually change the trajectory of someone’s life,” said Meeks-Hank. Whether it is staving off an eviction, helping someone get Social Security benefits, or solely providing a hot meal, Meeks-Hank is optimistic about the future of Face to Face.  “We don’t expect to change the world, we’re simply here to address the suffering,” she said.

Maryellen (Mare) Brennan can be reached at marebrennan7@yahoo.com. A.J. Groy can be reached at DJAJGroy@gmail.com.