This article was originally published in the December 2017 Princeton Echo.
It’s a Wednesday afternoon in downtown Princeton, and wait staff and chefs at a dozen different food venues are busy preparing ingredients for the main entrees, cooking sides dishes, putting out tablecloths, polishing silver and glassware, and setting tables. It’s a predictable routine in the food industry, from the gourmet restaurant with the highest prices to the cozy corner diner with affordable comfort food. But there’s something remarkably different at one Princeton dining destination.
4:40 p.m. About 50 people are waiting patiently in line on the walkway leading to a back entrance of the historic Princeton United Methodist Church at the corner of Nassau Street and Vandeventer Avenue. On some days the Methodist Church gives discerning visitors tours of its original Tiffany stained glass window. But not today. The visitors in this line are waiting for the opening of what is — at this moment — the most popular restaurant in a town. It’s the Cornerstone Community Kitchen — a soup kitchen operating every Wednesday evening in a town that is known for its affluence and academic brilliance, not as the home of people in need.
The scene resembles the reunion of an extended family. Ages range from the newly born to the elderly. “The demographic we serve is about 20 percent elderly, about 50 percent ages 20 to 50, and the remaining percentage infants and children,” says Larry Apperson, Cornerstone’s program coordinator. “Most of our guests live within walking distance of the church.”
Apperson notes that although Cornerstone is located within Princeton United Methodist, it is a 501(c)3 entity separate from the church. “We draw about 20 percent of our volunteers from the PUMC congregation,” he says, “the rest a cross-section of folks from Princeton and the surrounding area.”
Someone in line organizes a series of impromptu foot races — “Ready, set … GO!” — to occupy the restless children. There’s also a smattering of solitary, silent figures, patiently waiting.
5 p.m. At precisely 5 the doors swing open, and a smiling presence emerges, wearing a name tag identifying him as “Rick.”
“We’re all set. No pushing or shoving, please,” Rick Kelly, a volunteer at Cornerstone, says good-naturedly. It soon becomes clear that his admonishment is unnecessary, as people enter the dining room in an orderly fashion. Kelly greets each and every one, many by name. A few are favored with hugs. “Hi Sandy, how are you?”
“Don’t get in the way of our love fest, Thelma!” he jokes.
As the adult guests enter — everyone who comes to Cornerstone Community Kitchen is referred to as a guest — they’re handed a number, part of a system that ensures fair access to the ancillary services offered at Cornerstone every Wednesday evening.
Before them is the dining room. In keeping with Cornerstone’s aim of treating guests with dignity and respect, the room is kitted out more like a cafe than a cafeteria. The tables are covered with cloth table cloths, and each table has a seasonal centerpiece. The meal will be served on china plates. The coffee is from Small World.
Surprisingly, there’s music as well. Not from a CD player or streaming service, but the soothing sound of live piano music playing discretely in the background. At the keyboard is Yvonne Macdonald, retired after 40 years as director of music for children and youth at Princeton United Methodist Church. You will find her at Cornerstone pretty much every Wednesday evening, performing an eclectic repertoire of children’s songs — tunes from Disney films are featured favorites — as well as pop and classical selections.
She also occasionally serves as a piano tutor to a regular guest seated at the table next to the piano with her two smiling boys, an infant and a toddler. “I hold the baby while Lea plays,” Macdonald says.
To the left as the guests enter is an information table holding brochures that describe various social services and programs available in the Princeton area. On one recent evening two Princeton University undergraduates, part of group called Insure Jersey, walk from table to table, offering people help signing up for the Affordable Care Act. Their role is explained by Apperson over the public address system at the beginning of the dinner, and then translated into Spanish by Eli Soffer, an eighth grader at Princeton Day School.
There’s also what Apperson refers to as a “love basket” for good-will offerings, although there is no suggested donation or even a suggestion to pay what you can. Apperson says that by the end of the evening there’s usually $10 to $15 in the basket.
A sign on the wall lists many of the organizations that contribute to Cornerstone, including Bentley Community Services, McCaffrey’s, Whole Foods, Cherry Grove Organic Farm, Waldorf School, Historical Society of Princeton, WAWA, and Littlebrook Elementary School.
Some guests head for long tables along the wall and fill bags with bread, lettuce, kale, and other donated produce before dining, while others claim seats at a dining table.
On a typical Wednesday evening, Cornerstone serves 120 or more meals before the allotted 90 minutes is up. The number of meals served is up substantially from 50 or so meals served per evening when Cornerstone first opened its doors in 2012. At the time some skeptics wondered if there would be sufficient demand for a soup kitchen in the heart of upscale Princeton. One of the reasons for Cornerstone’s continued existence is obvious to Apperson, a retired IBMer and a member of PUMC. “Children are going hungry in Princeton,” he says. “We can’t have that.”
The scene in the food service area is an impressive exercise in choreographed chaos, as a dozen or so volunteers keep steam tables and warming trays stocked, serve meals, and replenish china, napkins, and trays.
While entrees are prepared by Cornerstone’s partner, the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK), volunteers at Cornerstone have been hard at work on Tuesday evening and Wednesday during the day to prep salads, vegetables, and other offerings for guests. Others begin helping out as early as 6:30 a.m., picking up donated food from partnering organizations.
Ramesh Jayaram and his family are among the volunteers. Ramesh, his wife, Prabha, and their two sons, Mohit and Rohit, began volunteering two years ago. “I was looking for a volunteer opportunity where we could all participate and make a difference,” he says. “Cornerstone is a way to give back and do something that has a positive impact on the community and on my kids.”
The need for companionship seems to be as important at Cornerstone as the meal service. The hunger goes well beyond the desire for a nutritious meal. As parents and guardians choose meals for themselves and their children, their tablemates willingly and happily hold or entertain the kids. Conversation flows freely around the tables. “People tend to congregate in the same social groups from week to week,” Apperson says, “although new faces change the mix over time. We see a lot of families, but it’s also become a place for older folks to come for the social contact.”
The food on offer would not be out of place at any casual restaurant. On a recent Wednesday, guests could choose from Lucy’s pasta, a vegetable medley, garden salad, and bread and butter. PB&J sandwiches are available for children to take home.
5:30 p.m. The meal service is just part of Cornerstone’s weekly 90-minute mission. A volunteer takes to the PA system to announce in English and Spanish that the store is open. Ten numbers are drawn corresponding to the numbers that had been distributed at the front door, and the chosen guests head for the Cornerstone store.
The “store” is a room filled with clothing, shoes, toiletries, luggage and other necessities, all donated, all free for the taking. The store’s gatekeeper and manager is Judy Miller, formerly a NICU nurse at the Princeton Medical Center. She is aided by assistant manager Jeannette Timmons and a teenage volunteer.
Miller points out that Cornerstone has increased the scope of its mission. “We’ve expanded to include ESL, blood pressure screening and general health, nutrition, safety, and other educational programs for children,” Miller says.
“With an increasing number of Hispanics comprising Cornerstone’s guests, we began offering an ESL course last year,” Apperson says. Led by a former teacher for the Princeton schools, the fledgling program has already produced its first four graduates.
Miller also notes the special events and services that Cornerstone and partnering organizations offer such as making backpacks available for school-age youngsters (in conjunction with PUMC and the Princeton Department of Human Services) and making free costumes available on Halloween.
“The pieces work together. We can use our health care piece along with the other resources. That’s the really gratifying thing, when all these pieces work together to produce a good final outcome,” she says.
As the first group of guests leave the store at the end of their allotted 15 minutes and the second group arrives, another “good outcome” becomes apparent in the darkened room next door. Adults and children pay rapt attention as, courtesy of the Princeton Fire Department, cartoon characters cavort across the screen, extolling the importance of fire safety practices in the home.
6:15 p.m. It’s quieter in the dining room as guests begin to take their leave, but clearly this is not a place where eat-and-run is the rule. There’s still time for coffee, a bit of table hopping, and the quiet enjoyment of Macdonald’s piano playing, as volunteers begin to clear tables. Other volunteers work with the precision of a drill team to clean up, clear up, and pack away until next week’s service.
6:30 p.m. On the way out, the guests pick up an additional packaged hot meal to take away, and on this particular night a bag of bagels. Many of the children proudly wear the firefighters’ hats they received at the screening of the safety film.
Macdonald, who has been playing for nearly 90 minutes with scarcely a break, plays I’ll Do Anything from Oliver (a nod to her British roots) and concludes the evening with the soothing Bach Prelude in C Major.
Cornerstone Community Kitchen, 7 Vandeventer Avenue, firstname.lastname@example.org.