Fourth in a series.
CEDAR FALLS, Iowa --- First United Methodist Church in Cedar Falls offers food for both body and soul. The same could be said for the dozens of Northeast Iowa congregations helping to stem hunger by hosting free community meals and food pantries.
On most Tuesday evenings, volunteers at First United Methodist Church fling open the doors to the makeshift cafeteria in a multipurpose room and ring the metaphorical dinner bell.
Dozens of dinner guests recently lined up for a bountiful spread: sloppy joes, baked beans, apple sauce, tomato slices, salad, brownie squares and ice cream. Beaming volunteers served up entrees and side dishes to senior citizens, young men, mothers with small children and teenagers and disabled adults.
After volunteering with Cedar Falls Community Meals for more than a decade --- the program is a few years older than that --- co-chair Claudette Cable knows many diners come for the fellowship as well as the food. Some show up early to sip coffee and mingle with servers.
Attendance always seems to increase as the month progresses, suggesting sparse cupboards and spent paychecks are part of the equation.
"We always find we seem like the count goes up a little bit just because it's the end of the month," Cable said.
More than a dozen churches or faith-based organizations in the Cedar Valley --- and many more across Northeast Iowa --- offer free meals, food baskets and pantries throughout the month. Some meal programs, like Cedar Falls Community Meals, involve partnerships between multiple congregations.
Faith communities play a significant role when it comes to feeding the hungry at home, according to staff at the Northeast Iowa Food Bank, which serves a 16-county area and works with more than 200 agencies. Specific figures aren't available but most meal and pantries offered in the community that are on the radar of Food Bank staff involve a religious organization. Not all meal programs involve a direct partnership with the Food Bank.
"Predominantly the pantries and community meals are faith-driven," said Karen Erickson, director of programs for the Food Bank.
Youth groups and church groups also faithfully show up to stock shelves, sort donations and load up items for Food Bank programs.
Congregations are significant players in the fight against hunger because they offer facilities, manpower and compassion for people in need. The food bank, when able and churches are willing, offers resources, support and advice. The food bank may sell food at a much-reduced rate to meal programs, which gives some churches the ability to afford dinner for 100-plus on a weekly or monthly basis. Food bank staff can also help identify locations new sites and community needs and aid in effective community outreach.
After hearing a Food Bank presentation on child hunger, Nancy Magnall thought her congregation, Vineyard Community Church in Waverly, should offer a kids cafe. The service quickly changed into a community meal that serves, on average,100 adults and children on Wednesday nights.
"I was surprised to see there are people in Waverly who actually may have an ongoing need for food," said Magnall, who noted that St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Waverly partners with other churches to serve meals at the Saints' Cafe three Mondays a month. " ... We don't think of Waverly of being a community that necessarily has a population that would not have enough food but it's obvious they do."
Many programs, like the one started more than three years ago at the Vineyard, started as a way to feed the hungry. One man told Magnall the church meal was the first he'd eaten in several days. However, caring for the whole person is also a priority for faith-based outreach. Singles and senior citizens that frequent community meals often crave companionship.
"As a church, we believe people can be hungry for food as well as fellowship," said Diane Lyman, who helps coordinate a monthly, Sunday night meal at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Cedar Falls, a relatively new meal site in the Cedar Valley.
The elderly who live alone might have food in their cupboards but might not bother to cook themselves a decent, balanced meal, Cable added.
All are welcome. Stories come out from time to time but volunteers don't pry. They sense a need and are compelled to meet it.
"I just think we are supposed to be doing it. It's not up to us to judge," said volunteer Blair Templeton, 53, of Cedar Falls, as he scraped off trays during a meal at First United Methodist. The church hosts dinner on all but the first Tuesday of the month. Templeton has helped out for a decade.
Darline Short, 81, a regular at Cedar Falls Community Meals hosted at First Methodist, is widely known as the resident hugger. She delights in cheering up visitors and volunteers alike with a smile, a squeeze and quirky accessories.
"I've been widowed eight years and I never knew what it's like. This has helped fill this little gap," Short said.
She added, "For me, it's a way to show my faith. God gave me the whatever it is to like people. I just love to have people around."
The Food Bank often helps put food on the table for many community meals, volunteers also contribute food. In Waverly, community gardens supplement free meal programs with fresh vegetables. Preparing for and cleaning up after a meal requires many bodies and hours.
At St Luke's, volunteers want to serve their community, no strings attached, Lyman said.
"We are there to serve them nutrition and companionship. We are not there to preach to them or shove our religion down their throats," Lyman said. "We do it in a non-threatening way. It is strictly to serve them."
In the year that St. Luke's has been serving dinner, friendships have formed between regular guests and volunteers. New relationships provide a reason for both parties to return.
"And there's nothing better than to be able to eat with other people. It's lonely eating alone," Lyman said.
Serving others is a privilege, according to Rex Pershing, a volunteer at Cedar Falls Community Meals. If anything, it reminds a person to count their blessings.
"We consider it doing God's work," Pershing said.