LANCASTER – The First Community Kitchen has grown from a ministry started by an adult Sunday school class to a program that serves breakfast and lunch to those in need three days a week.
This is the 25th year for the program, and while the coronavirus pandemic has put a damper on the event, Lancaster First United Methodist Church is proud to be able to continue the program, even at a limited capacity.
As a COVID-19 vaccine rolls out across the country, 2021 is expected to be a year for the community kitchen to rebuild and ramp back up to numbers served in previous years.
Judy Kraft, the Children’s Discipleship and Outreach Director with the church, said the community kitchen is successful because of the local partners and volunteers with the program.
Donations from local grocers and restaurants like Keller Marketplace, Kroger and Gypsy Joe’s Ice Cream and Donut Co. allow the kitchen to serve a variety of meals. The kitchen also passes along food to other ministries if its needs have been met.
“When the pandemic started, there were a lot of things we had to adjust, we weren’t sure if we were going to be able to serve,” Kraft said. “But we knew we provide an essential service to members of our community who really need it, and we’re grateful for the help from around the community to provide this service.”
“So 2020 was a little different from other years. On average, we serve around 8,000 meals in a normal year. Last year, we managed to still serve 5,000, but we’re working on getting those numbers up again.”
Besides serving breakfast and lunch, Kraft said the community kitchen also provides a place for people to socialize. The kitchen’s clients could stop by for breakfast and wait inside the church, especially during the hot summer months or the cold winter months. Having a place to go when the weather’s nasty is important, and having a place to talk and get a “human connection” is just as important as eating, Kraft said.
“The idea is we want to be more than a soup kitchen. We provide food for the body, and food for the soul, too. Our volunteers take the time to visit with folks, and we get real familiar with our regulars,” she said. “The pandemic has kept some people away, and our guests can stick around after breakfast like they used to, but on the cold days, we let them warm up, as long as they follow social distancing and other COVID-19 guidelines.”
Jeff Thaxton, 50, is a Lancaster man who has benefited from the community kitchen. He’s attended for the last two years, and he said it’s nice to have a place to come in from the cold and someone to talk to.
“The pandemic has been challenging. With all the regulations, there’s really not a place to go sit. I can’t go to the mall, I can’t go to the library, it’s tough to find somewhere to get inside out of the rain and the snow,” Thaxton said. “The staff here at the kitchen is so friendly, and the food is excellent, there’s always plenty to eat.”
“Plus, the items they give out, like the socks and gloves, are always helpful, especially when the weather’s bad and you have to walk the street.”
First United is a giving partner with Bombas Socks, a partnership with Fairfield County 2-1-1 Information and Referral for that organization’s Extreme Temperature Plan. When the plan is activated, the community kitchen is a site for people to warm up and cool off, respectively.
Kraft said being able to provide more than just food is the “Christian” thing to do.
“When the Sunday school class started this 25 years ago, they wanted to do something to show the community the church is more than just a place where they talk about being good, they wanted to do good,” she said. “We’re honored to continue what they started, working to serve so many.”
Lynn Hall, Lynn Clarke and Linda Virene are all volunteers for the program, working to put the meals together each Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.
This will be Hall’s 20th year, and she said she’s glad she could help those in need.
“It can be hard out there, but being able to feed folks and help them out means a lot to me, and to us. It was weird to adjust to serving in the pandemic at first, but we’ve done it. As volunteers, we’ve become pretty close,” she said.
The ladies working Tuesday said they like the variety of food they can make, so the guests aren’t fed the same thing every day. Tuesday’s meal was mini pizzas on Asiago bagels from Panera Bread.
“We’re able to serve such a variety because of all the businesses that donate to us, and it means a lot to be able to serve folks more than just simple meals. Hopefully it shows them we’re thinking of them,” Clarke said. “We plan each meal the week before, trying to make sure we use everything that’s donated so we don’t waste anything.”
Some volunteers did not feel comfortable coming back to the kitchen after it was recommended those in vulnerable populations stay home, to avoid the virus. Kraft said volunteers like Hall, Clark and Virene kept the kitchen going, and the volunteers said they were more than happy to serve.
“This breaks my heart, that so many people in the area need our help, but I know we’re doing good. We want to help those who aren’t in good circumstances, and it’s a great feeling that we’ve been able to do something to make someone’s day even just a little bit better,” Kraft said.
This article originally appeared on Lancaster Eagle-Gazette: Celebrating 25 years of service to those in need, First Community Kitchen looks to future