Soul food: Mother, son found serving soup kitchen meals fulfilling
Loaves and Fishes opens 20th dining site
Inver Grove Heights
Mar 20, 2015
The church dining hall looked more like a restaurant than a soup kitchen. Just after 5 p.m., people started trickling in and took seats at 12 round tables scattered around the carpeted room. I sent my 15-year-old son to greet a man and woman.
"Tonight we have Italian pasta with red sauce, and a green salad and fruit salad," I heard him say, looking like a lanky busboy in a black hairnet.
I walked past him to greet three older men, obviously friends, who had sat down nearby.
After I told them the night's menu, one of them smiled and said, "Bellissimo!"
"Could I get a cup of coffee with that?" another asked politely.
I had dragged my teenager with me to volunteer on a recent Tuesday to serve dinner at River Heights Vineyard Church in Inver Grove Heights. In February it became the newest of 20 sites, mostly in the Twin Cities, where the nonprofit Loaves and Fishes serves free hot meals to the homeless and needy. The 30-year-old organization has doubled its locations in two years, sort of like Jesus multiplied those loaves in the Bible story.
Although the nonprofit no longer has a religious affiliation, it has religious roots. It was founded in the 1980s by Roman Catholic advocates to feed mentally ill people who ended up on the streets as Minnesota closed its state hospitals.
The first sites were at Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul and at the Church of St. Stephen in Minneapolis.
As the effort expanded, volunteer teams from congregations, not just Catholic parishes, would plan meals, buy ingredients and faithfully return month after month to the same church kitchen to cook meals, often big pans of hot dish.
Since 2013, under the direction of new executive director Cathy Maes, Loaves and Fishes has received additional grants from the St. Paul Foundation, Walmart, FR Bigelow Foundation and others and has rapidly added 10 sites, including its first breakfast site at the Salvation Army center on Payne Avenue and dinner for kids at an afterschool program at First Covenant Church on Arcade Street, both on St. Paul's East Side. The organization served a whopping 340,000 meals in 2013 and 420,000 in 2014.
"Our board wants us to open five new sites every year, and that's what we're going to do," Maes said. "We're probably going to exceed that."
To manage the expansion, the nonprofit hired chefs at the new sites and is recruiting new volunteers, including younger people who prefer one-time, spontaneous experiences. Old sites, like Faith Lutheran Church in St. Paul in the Summit University neighborhood, still primarily rely on congregation and corporate teams. At new sites, chefs plan menus, order food and manage the volunteers, who sign up online as I did and simply show up.
Our chef was Mona Moorhead, who ran a kitchen at an assisted living center before starting at Loaves and Fishes in December.
"It isn't so different," said Moorhead, who sported a can-do attitude and red baseball cap. "At assisted living, I knew I could order anything I wanted. I could order pork or salmon or whatever. Here I'm limited to what's available. And once it's gone, it's gone. But if you have enough experience cooking, you can work with it.
Moorhead orders ingredients from whatever is available through the food bank Second Harvest Heartland and fresh veggies from local wholesaler Bix Produce Co. A few volunteers helped her in the afternoon to make 250 turkey and beef meatballs seasoned with fennel, oregano and other spices.
"We try to keep it tasty," Moorhead said.
"I'm impressed with the food," said Jesse Edmond, one of the eight volunteers helping that night.
Edmond had been there since 2:30 p.m., slicing and dicing with a fellow nursing student from Century College. The twenty-something women were fulfilling a service learning requirement.
"It would be so easy to take food out of a can," Edmond said. "But I don't think anything came out of a can, except the tomato sauce. And we cut up all the watermelon and fruit. That's impressive."
It's also a change. After a nutritionist evaluated the meals, Loaves and Fishes last year banned desserts and urged all the sites to reduce sugar and starch and add more fresh produce.
About half the Loaves and Fishes sites serve cafeteria style, but I enjoyed waiting tables. Two Boy Scouts from Eagan stayed in the back hall pouring drinks. A few people plated food, and the rest of us carried it out. The time went quickly as we hustled back and forth.
It was impossible to say if most or even any of the 107 people who ate that night were homeless or even low-income. Loaves and Fishes doesn't ask questions and welcomes everyone who shows up.
I served elderly folks, families with children and a guy who came late in a workman's uniform with his first name stitched on it. A few people looked rough around the edges and didn't make eye contact, while others bantered with me and then scrolled through iPhones.
Because the River Heights Vineyard Church site is new, word is still trickling out. Now it serves only Monday and Tuesday evenings but it is expected to add nights. Loaves and Fishes partnered with the church because it was already serving some meals to the neighborhood and had remodeled its kitchen to commercial standards.
Many diners seemed to know each other. Most, but not all, stayed after dinner for praise music and a Christian recovery celebration for people with alcohol or drug addictions.
By the end of the night, there was camaraderie among the kitchen help.
"You can take off your hairnets," Moorhead said, and we all whipped them off.
"Oh but they are so attractive," quipped Boy Scout mom Marsha Workman, who was running racks of plates through the stainless-steel industrial Hobart dishwasher.
Workman was back for her third volunteer shift with her son. She said it's a meaningful and friendly place to volunteer with kids.
"There are things only the adults can do, like run the dishwasher," she said. "But there are things anyone can do, like run out plates or wrap silverware."
"I like doing this, and the people are friendly," said her 12-year-old son, Phil Workman.
Moorhead asked my son to sweep the kitchen and he grabbed the broom with a cheerfulness he never shows at home.
Before we finished cleaning up, we sat down to eat. My teen polished off four big meatballs. We agreed that it was a tastier dinner than we would have gotten at our house that night.
"It was better than I thought it would be," he said on the drive home.
"The experience or the food?" I asked.
He had not wanted to come and initially thought it would be awkward to interact with people.
"Both," he said.
Maja Beckstrom can be reached at 651-228-5295.
What: Volunteering with Loaves and Fishes
Where: Various dining sites around the Twin Cities
Information: 612-377-9810 or loavesandfishesmn.org
Hours: Shifts are available most weekday and Saturday afternoons to cook or serve.
Cost: Cash donations are encouraged, but not expected
Target audience: Children as young as 8 may prepare food or serve with an adult; only older children may handle hot food or work with knives in the kitchen.
Crowd pleaser: Having fun while doing good
Tip: Find more ways to volunteer with kids at DoingGoodTogether.org
More: Plan your family fun with more than 160 Family Outings at twincities.com/family