Veggie dogs are now on the menu at the soup kitchen at Trinity United Church in Port Coquitlam thanks to the contributions of members of the local branch of the Tzu Chi Foundation.
The group, which is part of an international Buddhist charitable organization, will now be serving lunch twice a month at Trinity and will be dishing out vegetarian food because members promote a vegetarian diet.
"It's part of our philosophy to offer food that we would want to eat ourselves," explained the foundation's Anita Kwong.
The group joins St. Catherine's Anglican Church, which organizes the weekly meals and also prepares and serves food twice a month.
"They're a great bunch of people to work with," said Bernie Poitras, who said Tzu Chi volunteers, who had been serving lunch one Wednesday a month for a year, stepped in for the second Wednesday shift when another church had to drop out.
"I was literally beating the bush," Poitras said. "I talked to the Tzu Chi Foundation and they said, 'Fine and dandy.' They'll do it twice a month."
Poitras has been serving his homemade soup on food bank days at Trinity United for several years and said people enjoy the Tzu Chi group's vegetarian hot dogs.
Kwong said the hot dogs have been popular - one man, she recalls, asked for several. "I think he was hungry," she said, adding that the group has enough volunteers and food to keep the lunch program going.
In addition to serving food, the Tzu Chi volunteers are also handing out approximately 260 bags of personal care items to food bank recipients at the Port Moody, Coquitlam and PoCo food banks.
Each year, the group raises about $15,000 for its soup kitchen and winter relief effort. But money isn't going as far as it used to. More people are using the food bank this year and the soaps and shampoos are more expensive, Kwong said. Still, everyone who is homeless will get a bottle of hand sanitizer and mouth rinse in their cloth bag, along with other items.
According to Poitras, the number of people using the soup kitchen has increased to between 120 and 150 people, compared to about 100 last year. He said tougher economic times have taken their toll on the working poor and some may have lost jobs.
Joyce Lissimore, who co-ordinates the PoCo food bank for Share Family and Community Services, agreed numbers are up this year but said homeless and low-income people are being well cared for, thanks to the donations from Share and the community.
"We are doing very well for donations," Lissimore said, noting items such as tampons, pads and toilet paper are always appreciated.
Also this week, volunteers will be meeting to organize the count of homeless people in the Tri-Cities. The count, which takes place every three years and is held throughout Metro Vancouver, will take place March 15 and 16.