The Dinner for a Dollar
Dinner for a Dollar came about in 2011 from the determination of Grace and St Peter's parishioner Allison Batson, an early-childhood teacher who was becoming increasingly aware of the stress that her pupils’ families were experiencing making rent and paying bills—a situation that had worsened with the financial crisis in 2008. She did some research, learned more about the pervasive nature of food insecurity in the New Haven area, and turned to the church community for ways to help.
The church had a large commercial kitchen that was scarcely being used, a small but mighty congregation of kind and caring people eager to act on their faith, and a rector, the Rev. Amanda Gott, who was prepared to take a chance on an ambitious idea: a weekly community supper, prepared by church volunteers and open and affordable to all. The ensuing twelve years have seen a change in clergy leadership and the merger between Grace and St Peter’s and St John the Evangelist, as well as the seismic disruption of the covid-19 pandemic. Through it all, Dinner for a Dollar has grown stronger.
This ministry fills an important place in many people’s lives. Some come for the delicious food. Some come for the companionship. Some come to volunteer. All those who come, for whatever reason, are helping to build community. Relationships have sprung up between the worshiping congregation of the church and the guests at Dinner for a Dollar, increasing the support network of some of the area’s most vulnerable people, and enriching the life of the church.
Before the pandemic, Friday nights drew around 50 to 60 guests. The Saturday site at Hamden Plains had just opened when the pandemic hit, and grew steadily throughout the remainder of 2020. At the height of the pandemic disruption in 2020, we served over 100 people every Friday and around 50 every Saturday. These numbers have largely persisted even after the end of the emergency, as food prices have stayed high; and a comparable number of guests come by our food truck on Sunday afternoons for takeout meals.
At left, the 12th anniversary celebration for Dinner for a Dollar, June 2023
As Dinner for a Dollar has grown, the church kitchen has been upgraded to meet the standards of the Department of Public Health; a vegetable garden has been planted; and an extensive network of partnerships has grown up with numerous other faith communities, the town of Hamden, and many social service and advocacy organizations.
Dinner for a Dollar has no paid staff. It is entirely run by volunteers from the host churches and from the community. Some of the food served is donated by local restaurants, bakeries, and other businesses; the rest is cooked up by volunteers in our Department of Public Health-certified church kitchens. Volunteer cooks may be reimbursed for the cost of the ingredients but often choose to absorb the costs themselves.
Thanksgiving 2019 at Dinner for a Dollar. We returned to full sit-down table service in 2023, while still offering takeout for those who prefer. At holiday meals, guests are served at table rather than cafeteria style.
On January 17, 2020, Allison Batson was the first recipient of the United Way of Greater New Haven’s “Game Changer” award.
Grace and St Peter’s received the February 2020 Religious Service Award from the Hamden Black History Committee, in recognition of several parish endeavors including Dinner for a Dollar and its expansion to Hamden Plains United Methodist Church.
The New Haven Independent recognized Dinner for a Dollar’s eighth anniversary in July of 2019. This article features links to sound clips from Dinner for a Dollar guests, recorded by students at Quinnipiac University.