The Ohana Community Café, in the basement of St. Peter’s Anglican church in SW Calgary, has lunch turnaround down to around five seconds per person.
When the café’s coordinator, Cameron Graham, took over the program three years ago, they were serving 15 to 20 kids daily. Now they serve 120.
“You’ve got to try and get through serving 120 kids in about 20 minutes. And so, we’ve had to really streamline how we serve at the window to try and be fast enough,” he said.
“A lot of the kids take their lunch to go now because there’s just so little time.”
Graham said that a couple of times each year they do free hot dog days and they’re serving 500 students in 20 minutes.
Location, location, location
The café is located directly south of the Calgary Board of Education’s Henry Wise Wood High School. It’s a school with a capacity of around 1,200 Calgary students.
This past June, the school’s cafeteria shut down, Graham said. The school’s website does show that they still operate a kiosk with “an array of healthy snacks, beverages and treats,” but there’s no indication of full cafeteria service.
Ohana’s seen spikes of up to 150 students as a result. The modest basement set up can only seat 100, so that leaves 50 others using the takeout service.
There are a couple of signs that direct Calgary student traffic to the location; down a set of wooden stairs to the nondescript door that faces the intersection at 75 Avenue and Elbow Drive SW. It’s the side entrance to a church stairwell. From there you go down into a roughly 30-foot by 30-foot room with tables and chairs, much like a typical cafeteria.
Ohana’s early beginnings
The Ohana Café program started eight years ago. The church’s former youth leader launched the program as a lunch and afterschool refuge for kids who didn’t fit in, Graham said.
“It was primarily trying to provide a safe place for kids that felt like they really didn’t fit in and were feeling bullied or kind of intimidated by the crowd and the bustle of a really big high school,” Graham said.
The program transitioned after the original leader left. The focus turned to students – and their families – that were struggling financially. The goal was to provide low-cost, nutritious meals.
Graham, who has a Bachelor’s degree in theatre and voice, got involved through a theatre group that was using the church space. One of the ladies in his theatre group was a volunteer on the board that oversees the café.
“I’d just been laid off from a previous job and she was like, “well, you really like cooking, and I’ve tasted your food and you’re really good at cooking. You should come apply for this job,’” he said.
Low-cost lunch for Calgary students
They provide lunch Monday to Thursday (early Friday dismissal). Meals cost $2.50, but students can get a semester card for $100. They can come for lunch daily for the semester at that cost. Graham said that works out to around $1.32 per lunch.
“I have four kids. I know I don’t pack bag lunches for $1,” he said.
There’s a relationship with counselors at Henry Wise Wood where information is shared to allow families that are struggling to access the semester card.
“None of those kids know that they’re sponsored,” Graham said.
“We go out and through the community and through the church find someone to buy their semester cards on their behalf.”
Graham said they’re often contacted by grandparents of kids at the school who go to Ohana and ask how they can support Calgary students they don’t even know.
They’re able to keep costs low as a non-profit by being a part of the Community Kitchen’s Spinz-A-Round program where they get donated groceries from big grocers. Working in the church basement – and technically as a church ministry – also helps keep overhead low.
Agenda-free, safe space for Calgary students
Even with the church connection, Graham said it’s a place with no agenda.
“A big part of our mandate is that there’s no expectation of anything in return,” he said.
“We want to be a safe place where the kids can come for lunch, and they don’t get hijacked by any other agenda. There’s no church-related stuff that’s allowed in this room when my kids are here for service.”
He said they’re having an impact on the community and families with students attending Henry Wise Wood. They also provide support for homeless people in the area, offering small grocery bags or a lunch.
Graham said he believes the demand will continue to grow. He’s seen it grow each year he’s been coordinator. But, they’ll have to max out at some point, he said.
“I will cap out when we hit 300. That’s about as much as I can produce out of this kitchen in that amount of time,” he said.