A prayer of thanks began the meal at St. Benedict the Moor in Milwaukee the Monday before Thanksgiving. Six days a week the agency serves dinner for those without homes and for those who can’t go home. Volunteers along with the Franciscan priests know the Community Meal is also a ministry.
“If you’re standing in line and you want to come to the meal, you are welcomed,” said Brother Rob Roemer. “We don’t ask questions, we don’t pass judgment. Everyone is here because they are hungry for something. It could be food. It could also be companionship,” he said.
Sargento has been a part of St. Ben’s Community Meal for more than 20 years. Our cheese nourishes diners with natural protein, which is hard to come by on the streets. Every month our employees prepare and help serve the meal. The Monday before Thanksgiving Sargento CEO Louie Gentine, his two sons, his father and niece were among the volunteers.
“My dad asked us if we wanted to come and we said ‘Yes,'” said Louis Gentine who turns 15 after Christmas. “It’s really nice that we can help people. It puts a smile on my face.”
Louis and his younger brother Jack stood at the front of the line, handing out meal trays and napkins. Their father served up sloppy joe meat prepared in the Sargento Sensory kitchen. Their grandfather dropped generous handfuls of cheese on the open-faced sandwich.
“It makes me proud that it’s our cheese,” said Jack Gentine. “I’m glad my dad asked us to come.”
About halfway through the night Brother Rob called for security. A diner had a seizure and fell hitting his head, causing it to bleed. Other diners reacted strongly, prompting the need to settle things down. Jack saw the flashing lights of the ambulance through the window and asked his big brother what happened. He hadn’t noticed the commotion leading up to the emergency call.
Despite the flashing lights outside, the Community Meal didn’t miss a beat. People were still being fed and everyone kept their sense of humor.
“Look at this! Everyone here is smiling!” said one man coming through the line staring at Louis and Jack.
“What’s your name?” he asked their father.
“Louie,” he replied.
“Louie, I need two fat man scoops, don’t be shy!” said the man causing everyone within earshot to laugh. Louis found his words especially funny.
“My sons were excited to come and I’m glad they are having a good experience helping people out,” said Louie Gentine. “Enjoy this meal,” he told diners while serving them.
Along with sloppy joes and cheese, steamed and fresh vegetables filled their trays along with a banana and their choice of homemade dessert. Sargento family members prepare baked goods to send along with the main course. Our volunteer partner at St. Ben’s is St. Charles Borromeo parish in Milwaukee. It takes a combined effort to stage the Community Meal because there are so many people in need.
“Everyone thinks that the holidays are the busiest time for us, but it’s not. It’s actually the summer,” said Brother Rob. “People take in their loved ones during the holidays, but in the summer, when school is out a lot of people, especially children go hungry,” he said. “The end of the month is also busier because that’s when the money starts to run out. We serve about 350 to 500 people six nights a week. On Thanksgiving, we allow our diners to have seconds and we serve them, instead of them coming through the line,” said Brother Rob.
Toward the end of the meal, young Louis and Jack greeted a young man in his 20s who looked a lot like them.
“How old are you guys? 12? 13? I used to volunteer here when I was your age,” he said. “Don’t end up like me,” he said through a checkered smile.
The meal ended about two hours after it began. Brother Rob said it was an average night with roughly 360 people served. He thanked the volunteers by asking for God’s blessings. Jack and Louis reflected briefly on the evening.
“I’ve never heard anyone say ‘don’t end up like me’ before,” said Jack with an honesty that only children have.
“It really touched me seeing really little kids coming through the line. Some could barely see above the table,” said Louis.
What they saw in the room that night reinforced what they already see in their dad.
“He’s awesome. He’s a great dad. He helps us when we need it and he’s also a great leader,” said Jack.
“My dad is very nice and very giving,” said Louis. “He’s a good example; a good person to try to work up to being,” he said. “This year, I’m thankful that I can spend a day with my family and friends and that I get a meal with my family.”