Dollar-a-Dinner at Knights Table Restaurant

BRAMPTON, Ontario — Each day the Knights Table, a restaurant in the large Toronto suburb of Brampton, serves on average 175 full meals fit for a royal court.

The cost? One dollar, or in most cases, free.

The restaurant began in 1990 when Cecil Peters took his daughter Theresa for ice cream. In the shop he saw someone rummaging through the garbage for food. Peters' son Arthur remembers his late father's words: “This shouldn't be happening here.”

Within months, as a member of the Knights of Columbus and head of the Father Clair Tipping Council that spans both St. Marguerite d'Youville and St. Anthony of Padua parishes, Peters and the council founded Knights Table to feed the poor and homeless.

Since that modest start, this social-justice apostolate has grown so that last year Knights Table served 54,000 meals.

Diners such as Tex, who has been coming to Knights Table for more than 12 years, sing its praises.

“I love this place and the people here,” he said. “They help me. The food is fantastic. It's homemade.”

Brian, another regular in his 40s, contrasts it to impersonal facilities he's been to in different cities.

“It's more like going home to dinner when we were kids,” he said. “Here, there's more dignity. They come and serve you [at the table].”

Current Grand Knight and volunteer Larry Griffin finds the apostolate even affects children. On Christmas Eve he watched an 8-year-old daughter serve dinner with her family, then give a gift to a poor child. On Christmas Day both families returned.

“When the daughter asked the other little girl how she liked the gift,” Griffin said, “she said she gave it to another child less fortunate than herself. I was awestruck.”

It's the kind of story operations manager Ray Marentette hears regularly. He's a retired school administrator who volunteers more than 60 hours weekly. He treats the homeless, the working poor, the downtrodden, the immigrants, the addicted and the disabled at the Knights Table with all the affability of old friends.

“I believe the Lord has sent me to do his work in the community,” Marentette said. The Knight joined the apostolate three years ago when he moved to Brampton. Mar-entette's administrative background was just the ticket to guide the move to a restaurant facility now twice the size of the original, which was already outgrowing its space.

Knights Table gets regular donations such as skids of meat from major food markets, daily pizza from a chain and fresh corn from farmers. There's enough to regularly distribute food in the poorer subsidized housing areas, too.

Gifts From the Poor

Unexpected gifts come from the poor themselves.

After Marentette donated food to a native reservation with a fish farm, “two times they sent a truck with a half-ton of frozen filets to us,” he said.

Weekly, volunteer Jim Walker delivers a van full of bread products to the families in subsidized-housing townhouses.

On a recent trip that included bananas, one woman surprised him before he left. Her daughter ran to Walker's van “carrying one perfect, golden, hot banana pancake,” he said. “It was one of those God's-at-work-here moments. I had come to feed them. The cook was feeding me in return. She was nourishing my soul and giving me back something in kind.”

As Knights Table grew, so did volunteerism. While the Knights of Columbus council operates the apostolate, churches of all denominations and students from Catholic and public schools join in for an average 654 hours daily volunteer time.

Father Wayne Manne, council chaplain and pastor of St. Marguerite d'Youville, points to the effect on eighth-graders from several of the five schools in his charge.

“I've seen the impact it's had on young people in humanizing the poor, putting a face on them, [hearing] Jesus' call in the Gospel of Matthew that what you do to the least of them, you do to me,” he said.

Yet when he arrived in the area, he “initially questioned whether it was appropriate to have a Knights Table in a suburban area like Brampton rather than in Toronto,” he said. “It wasn't on the routes migrant people normally take.” But soon he saw the council “responding to a very genuine need” not being addressed.

To serve today's needs, there's now a paid full-time chef, executive director and weekend manager. Money for costs such as rent and utilities comes from donations, fund-raisers and a Trillium Foundation government grant of $165,000 over three years, which helped buy a much-needed truck.

“We're a food bank, a clothing center; we're many aspects in that one building,” Griffin said. “We want to move to the next level to help the less-fortunate people to get a shower, a suit and that job interview.”

More Than Food

Regular visitor Brian can't forget one recent incident.

“I had a pretty rough year,” he said, describing job-related injury that kept him out of work. Unknown to him, Tex told the staff about Brian's birthday. “[They] brought out a cake!” said Brian, still a bit surprised. “It was such a special touch. They go out of their way here.”

He finds more than a meal. “You meet people here,” he said. Friendships form and one helps another. “Tex is like a brother now,” he said. Brian also brings his own blood brother, who is on disability, because “it gets him out to meet people.”

By working with the poorest of the poor in the community, you can motivate people to work with you, Marentette advised.

“All you need to do to start up a food kitchen in your community is to desire to do it, and the Lord is right there behind you 110%,” he said.

The son of the founder underlines this truth.

“It all started,” Arthur Peters said, “when a man stood in a restaurant and saw somebody rummaging for food in a garbage can.”

Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.