Diana’s Irish beef vegetable soup was the St. Patrick’s Day special lunch item on the Happy Gang menu that rotates everyday with the soups named after its makers.
“We’re trying to make everything sound funky and cool at the centre,” said Diana Penner who made the soup and is the lunch coordinator at the senior’s organization in downtown Terrace known for its tasty and affordable lunches five-days a week and breakfasts on Saturday.
With between 35 to 50 volunteers in the kitchen, mostly senior women, or “grannies” from all walks of life, the Happy Gang Centre has been a long-running fixture in Terrace.
Penner took over the role from her mother, Tina Brouwer, 10 years ago after she retired as the food purchaser in finding local suppliers.
“I’ve always kind of been helping my mother a little bit here and there, so, for the last 30 years, I’ve been involved in Happy Gang in one aspect or another,” she said.
Hailing from a family of farmers, Penner’s association with food is “earth deep,” as she likes to call it.
The family moved to Terrace in 1965 from Holland and ran a 40-acre farm on Braun’s Island. Back then people from across the northwest would drive through their gates to buy vegetables.
Penner’s dad would also supply fresh produce to Kitimat and Prince Rupert.
“We were forever running around getting a pound of this or a pound of that,” she reminisces about the busy days when the family ran the establishment as a big market garden.
It was a lot of work but they also got the opportunity to connect with a lot of families that came through their gates.
Penner’s father passed away when she was 17 and her mother ran the farm by herself after that.
Later on, Penner and her husband decided to stay on the farm and help. They set up their house on the other end of the 20-acre farm, connected by a trail that leads to the family home.
Farm gate operations slowed down 15 years ago and a lot of farmers quit after it became a struggle. Penner’s family cut back as well. Cheaper foreign-grown produce curbed the local demand.
“Nobody could make a living on the farm anymore,” Penner said, adding that farmers in the area took up full-time jobs.
Penner was raising her children around the time agriculture took a downward dip but she realized food security was going to became a real problem in the area.
She started the Greater Terrace Food Association to focus on local food and worked with the Ksan Society to establish a community greenhouse.
After that, Penner, along with a group of like-minded people introduced cooking programs in the community.
Even as people stopped buying from their local farmers, they were also no longer cooking much at home, Penner noted.
“We wanted to find out what can we best do to service the community,” she said, because enabling people to cook was also important to get them into good food habits.
Penner took the challenge right to the roots to help parents and children understand whole foods.
As a trustee of Coast Mountain School District 82 she helped set up school lunch programs, taking children on fruit picking adventures and making fresh soups in schools.
Around 2014, to once again revive the farming culture in Terrace, Penner started the Community Supported Agriculture program.
Slowly, other young farmers in the area got into the groove and small scale farming projects started getting support from the community.
“It was really cool to see that happening. So I started pulling out of that as well and I was kind of like, okay, those guys got that covered,” said the 65-year-old Penner who then went on to concentrate her efforts full-time with the Happy Gang.
“The focus here [Happy Gang] has always been home cooking,” Penner said.
Keeping lunches priced between $5 and $10, the aim has always been to provide food to people who don’t have a large income.
“And we want to encourage people from all incomes to come here,” she said.
Balancing these goals against a tight budget and ensuring quality meals is one of the functions Penner performs.
The cooking crew consists mainly of senior women, who bring forth delicious recipes from across cultures such as borscht, Mediterranean chickpea soup etc.
“I’m hoping that it’s going to become very inclusive as time goes by. That’s our objective, is to try and make this place a place that rocks,” Penner says.
Along with a multicultural experience, the Happy Gang also tries to ensure that their senior patrons get a chance to interface with other younger people.
Afternoons typically wind up with people playing games, puzzles, or singing along as pianist Donna Thompson takes over and transforms the hall into a glee club.
Penner feels these social gatherings are a huge part of the essence of Happy Gang.
“It isn’t just about being social with your age group, it’s about being social with your community and that enriches your life, it makes you be able to avoid dementia and to be important and valued,” she says,.
“And for me that’s a valuable thing to be a part of, so it’s really cool actually.”