When something runs smoothly, it’s easy to believe it just “happens.” The reality is even the most basic of endeavors requires an investment of forethought, ability, time, patience and passion.
For example, serving a meal is more than putting food on a table. There must be a desire to balance the elements — planning a menu, securing space, creating a pleasing atmosphere, extending the welcome, meal preparation and so on.
A group of area churches provided free community meals in Cedar Falls for 31 years. It started at St. Patrick Catholic Parish and later moved to First United Methodist Church. Several area congregations rotated cooking, serving and cleanup duties.
First UMC member Becky Hardman oversaw the operation on behalf of the church, beginning in 1998. When Becky, a retired nurse, stepped down in December 2015, no one took her place. The meal program was discontinued.
The break proved temporary. Previous volunteers have restored the program at First UMC because it offered the best facilities, location and history with past attendees.
Now, with 13 total congregations, a meal is served each Tuesday, beginning at 4:30 p.m. Food is provided by congregations and donations from the Northeastern Iowa Food Bank and Hy-Vee. The dinner is not a fundraiser. It’s not restricted to those with a “financial need.”
It’s not an attempt to lure new members. Instead, coordinators simply want to provide a meal, a place to gather and a reminder of our interconnectedness.
“That’s it; that’s the only reason we do it,” said Keith Graber, a member of Bethlehem Lutheran and a longtime meal coordinator. “We don’t ask for donations; we don’t even put out a basket. We just want people — anyone — to come and eat.”
The outing became a special treat — especially for those who can’t afford a regular restaurant meal. Some elderly attendees tell me they look forward to having someone to eat with. Several volunteers say they enjoy the fellowship, too.
One attendee explains he’s in “several drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs” and views the meal as an “appointment.” Another who attends with his group home says he’s glad the meal started again and hopes it will continue.
The program once served in excess of 200 per week. Coordinators hope to regain those numbers; recent attendance hovers at 120-140.
“I don’t think other organizations necessarily stepped in and filled the void or that people found another place to go,” he explains. “From what we see, the need is there. I just don’t know if everyone who used to attend knows the meals are back on. I also wonder if people know we’re here and that they can come. Anyone can come.”