A local asset: The Service Dining Rooms

Since 1935 The Service Dining Rooms has tirelessly fed the homeless of central Cape Town every day, and – since the advent of COVID-19 – has begun to use its premises as a centre for distribution of food to other NGOs feeding those in need elsewhere in the city.

Volunteer sorting in the dining room

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is being felt in almost every part of life, and, as ever, this impact is felt the most by the most vulnerable people in society. Since the beginning of the lockdown in South Africa, on 27 March, the homeless have faced ever-increasing challenges in accessing food. Providing food relief to vulnerable populations is now a bigger issue than ever, and is likely to remain one of South Africa’s biggest concerns for months to come.

The first weeks of the lockdown showed that most food relief is being coordinated and supplied by civil society. This ranges from individuals cooking for their immediate local community, to well-established NGOs feeding thousands of people daily, and from long-established institutions to newly created responses to the dire need being experienced.

COVID-19 has brought a unique set of challenges to any institution wishing to help the homeless, and The Service Dining Rooms is no exception. Karen Cain, the Operations Manager, is not only coping with issues of assuring social distancing and hygiene, but has also noted a number of significant changes affecting the people that they help.

New challenges

Sanitising station

There are far more people queuing for food than there were before COVID-19. There are more mothers with children, there are people who previously were able to scrape a living on the street and did not need the lunches The Service Dining Rooms provide, and – tellingly – there are far more people who are not homeless, but whose economic circumstances are now so straitened that they have to queue for food.

The stress of lockdown is also starting to show in increased aggression on the street. The inability of many to be able to earn anything at all has led to increased frustration and a notable change in attitude amongst some of those queueing for food. This has meant that staff at The Service Dining Rooms have had to exercise additional caution, above and beyond the requirements for serving food under lockdown conditions.

The lack of access to water (showers are closed, and public taps have been put out of service) also has significant implications for handwashing for the homeless. Any institution providing food to the homeless has had to add some form of handwashing and sanitising to its operations, as none of the people with whom they interact with have access to any reliable form of safe hygiene.


Lessons learned

There are a number of useful lessons that have been learned at the The Service Dining Rooms, which have direct application to any entity involved in feeding the vulnerable.

  • Social distancing is the highest priority – and possibly the most difficult challenge.  The Service Dining Rooms has addressed this by:
    • Not feeding anyone inside the building (for the first time in their long history).  Instead, people are encouraged to utilise a grassy bank outside while they wait for food and while they eat.
    • Only feeding 20 people at a time.
    • Spray-painting dots on the pavement, to indicate where people should stand.
    • Lightening the atmosphere by making a game of standing on the dots – encouraging different groups of 20 people to do better than previous groups in adhering to the social distancing requirements.
  • Given that people cannot be fed indoors, food containers have become a serious issue.  In general, reusable containers have not proven practical, and so disposable containers (despite their effect on the environment) have had to be used.  Sourcing these containers will remain a constant challenge for any feeding scheme. 
  • Everyone has to have their hands sanitised before receiving food.
  • Once people have received their food, The Service Dining Room staff mark their arms/hands with permanent marker to indicate that they have had their allocation for the day.
  • It is important for staff to be aware that people are increasingly hungry and desperate, and that this can spiral into violence.  Coping strategies need to be in place for such instances.
  • Building relationships with businesses in the immediate area reaps significant benefits.  The Service Dining Rooms have worked on increasing their exposure with neighbouring businesses, and now regularly receive donations of cash or food from them when possible.
  • Masks remain an issue.  Any access to mask manufacturers, or to donations of masks, should be maximised.  Insisting that food recipients wear masks before they can have a meal will lead to some people not being fed, and a workaround for this issue has to be found.


Fruit from a farmer

Dots for social distancing!

One load of donated goods, needs to be sorted

Planning for winter

 Feeding schemes must start planning for winter.

  • Providing some cover for food recipients and kitchen staff, given that most operations will have to take place out of doors to maintain social distancing, will be essential for the wet Cape winter.
  • It is never too early to start a drive for non-food items that the vulnerable will need most in the cold.  Specifically, socks and beanies are particularly useful – irrespective of whether the socks match!  More traditional items such as blankets and coats are also helpful, but are bulkier and more difficult to source. They are also heavy, and – once donated – are difficult to carry around. 
  • Calorie requirements are higher in the cold – and funding requirements are correspondingly higher.  Added to the economic effects of the lockdown, feeding schemes are likely to face a winter of higher demand than ever before, and will need to be innovative and consistent in sourcing funding. 

You can help

Food like this sorted and ready to go to beneficiaries

The Service Dining Rooms receive no funding from the government, and operate solely on donations. They welcome contributions of food or funding, and their long track record provides assurance that any donations are genuinely used to enable them to continue to serve meals to Cape Town’s people – as they have for over three generations.

To assist The Service Dining Rooms in any way, you can contact them on (021) 465 2390 or email Karen Cain directly on karen@sdr.org.za.

You can also support them financially. Here are their details:
Bank Account: The Service Dining Room
Bank: ABSA
Branch: Gardens Centre
Branch code: 632005
Current account: 4078995726