‘No practical excuse’ for people going hungry

The line outside the door and rave reviews indicate a swanky eatery, but at Cor Unum in Lawrence, Massachusetts, none of the clientele gets a bill. The meal center, built by parishioners at St. Patrick Parish 10 years ago, has served more than 2 million meals in one of the poorest cities in the country.

Melissa, a guest, said of the center, “It means my kids go to bed with a full belly.” They wake up well-rested and ready for school. “It means stability.”

One in 8 people in America struggles with hunger, and in communities like Lawrence, hunger is even more prevalent. Lawrence, 30 miles north of Boston, is the poorest city in Massachusetts. The median household income is $34,496, and 28.5 percent of its residents live below the poverty line.

Diners enjoy their meals at Cor Unum Meal Center.

More than a decade ago, parishioners at St. Patrick Parish set out to eliminate hunger in the city. They built Cor Unum, “one heart” in Latin, across the street from the church and began serving breakfast and dinner 365 days a year to anyone who came to the door. Volunteer wait staff greet, seat and serve the guests. The volunteers usually sit and eat their meal with guests, another sign that this meal center is about more than physical hunger.

James O’Connor, who has been volunteering at Cor Unum since he retired several years ago, said he has lived his whole life in Lawrence and witnessed many people struggling to make ends meet and make a better life for themselves.

“They’re not a stranger anymore,” he said.

Providing hope

Sheila Gilbert, president of the National Council of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, called Cor Unum’s approach “a model for the way we should always be treating our friends in need.” Such hospitality communicates that they are not a burden but a pleasure to serve.

Members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul run 317 food distribution centers and 75 dining rooms nationwide. In some places, they take food to the homebound. Last year alone, they served people more than 11 million times.

Gilbert said that smiling and greeting those who come for food communicates that someone cares about them and, by extension, that God cares about them. “There is a spiritual peace when you feed a person. You provide them hope.”

She emphasized that food is a basic need. Once someone starts to deal with a lack of food, it affects their overall health. Prolonged hunger can cause difficulty thinking clearly and having enough energy to perform tasks necessary for survival. It can be the beginning of a downward spiral and, in a particular way, can hurt children, who need nutritious food for brain development.

Inner-city America

Children make up the majority of guests who visit Cor Unum. Volunteers expressed surprise at how many children, some very young, come by themselves. It is not unusual for one child to bring a younger sibling in a stroller. Sometimes, they are unaccompanied because their parent is trying to hold down a job; other times, they do not have a stable adult in their lives.

In Lawrence, drugs are widespread, particularly opioids. Violence dominates the culture. Most of the young people never graduate from college; the high school graduation rate is 71.8 percent, but 10 years ago it was only 41 percent. Those who have a high school diploma may not have the necessary skills to land a job that will support them and their families.

Rick Simard volunteers at the center nearly every day. He grew up in Lawrence and remembers not having much but said he has witnessed suffering beyond what he experienced. Hearing about the difficulties of Cor Unum’s guests has taught him to put aside judgment. “At first, it was heartbreaking,” he said. “A lot of people are one paycheck away from this.”

Eliminating hunger

A large crucifix under the words “I thirst” draws the eye upon entering the dining room at Cor Unum. Sunlight streams in from two walls full of windows. Instrumental music plays. The round tables, each with eight chairs, are set with fresh flowers and bread baskets. On the menu for dinner are spaghetti and meatballs, macaroni and cheese, salad and dessert.

Before they seat the guests, the volunteers gather in a circle to say a prayer.

Despite opening for two meals for over 3,650 consecutive days, the center has never lacked the necessary food or volunteers to function. Cor Unum has one full-time and two part-time staff members, but volunteers supply the rest of the manpower. They prepare, cook, serve and clean up after two meals for hundreds of people every day.

Father Paul B. O’Brien, pastor at St. Patrick, said the center is proof that hunger in the U.S. can be eliminated.

“The lives of people who are hungry are obviously complicated, but the hunger itself — not at all,” he said. “If you have a building and you have people who are willing to give their time, hunger can be solved at the most minor cost. That’s one social ill for which there is no practical excuse in this country.”

Meals at Cor Unum run $1 each. Of that, only a dime pays for the food. Much of the food is obtained from a local food bank with nearby restaurants and food suppliers donating their surplus. The other nine dimes pay for utilities, maintenance, insurance and a delivery truck.

Like family

Father O’Brien said Cor Unum has led to some “brilliant success stories.” The center has been a safety net that has allowed some families to get back on their feet. Young people who may have resorted to crime for money in order to obtain food have another option. Some even gain a close relationship with Christ; each year 50-60 young people are baptized at St. Patrick’s Easter Vigil.

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While most people who come to the center are members of the working poor who do not have enough income to afford adequate nutrition, there are others who are unlikely to ever have enough income to afford food. They include the homeless, drug addicts and those on a fixed income due to disability or age.

Regarding them, Father O’Brien said, “We hope we’ll see them every day.”

Rita DiNicola, a volunteer, said she struck up a friendship with a homeless man who visits the center. He lives under a bridge and keeps her updated on how he is doing. When he had an extended stay in the hospital, he gave her a call to let her know. Sometimes, though, she does not hear from him for long periods of time.

“It worries me. I think, ‘Where is he? Is he OK?’ They’re like family,” she said.

Jennifer, who brings her family of six to Cor Unum, said that the volunteers at the center genuinely care and have helped with more than just meals during the tough time her family is going through.

“They never say ‘no.’ They’re always willing to help,” she said. “I don’t know what Lawrence would become without this place. People depend on it.”

Another guest, Al, added, “Every city should have a place like this.”

Christine M. Williams writes from Massachusetts.