Organizers for the weekly Neighbor’s Table meal never expected how quickly the need for a meal would grow since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Neighbor’s Table started in March 2012 as a dine-in meal every Saturday at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Russellville. Organizers of Neighbor’s Table said they averaged about 70 guests each week, but since the meal switched to drive-thru and delivery on March 21 of this year, almost 200 meals are served each week.
“Our numbers have almost tripled,” volunteer Carolyn McLellan said. “We can’t get together and cook, so we have teams of maybe three people spread out in the kitchen, so the food prep has gotten more complicated.
“We used to work all Saturday morning in the kitchen, but now we have scheduled more workdays so we can have fewer people.”
The meal can be picked up each week at the church from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. McLellan said the meal is usually nutritious, fresh and home-cooked, as the church tries to avoid using processed foods. She said there is a lot of cooking, especially of fresh vegetables.
She said it has always been a goal for the meal to be personalized, good-tasting food. She said many of the guests are elderly and are in delicate health, so it is important to serve healthy meals.
“We have several parishioners who are good gardeners, and we have a community garden on our church grounds,” she said. “Those gardeners will provide extra squash, tomatoes and other vegetables — so it all comes together.
“Usually, we offer a salad, a main dish and a dessert, and it’s all homemade.”
Charlie Tyron has been a volunteer with Neighbor’s Table for about 10 years, and he said it began to feel overwhelming when the decision was made to switch to drive-thru and delivery. He said more organization was needed to produce the meals, serve them and pack them.
“Last week, we fed 76 people through the drive-thru, and we distributed about 115 meals through delivery,” he said. “We are preparing 200 meals every week, when we were used to preparing 70 to 75 meals for the dine-in.
“I’m really glad that I am able to serve our community. I see all the drive-thru guests, and I talk to them and find out how they are doing.”
Tyron said most of the people who pick up the food are older than 60 and aren’t able to get out, shop or cook for themselves. He said they very much appreciate the meals that are provided.
“The others that are under 60 are from single-parent homes and are now working from home or not working at all and are trying to provide food for their children,” Tyron said. “It makes me feel very good that All Saints’ can provide the food at an expanded scale.”
Neighbor’s Table also gives guests bath soap, laundry detergent, toothbrushes and toothpaste, and toilet paper. Two weeks ago, the group offered fresh vegetables, such as tomatoes, cucumbers and mustard greens, along with limes and other fruit. In July, the group distributed masks to the drive-thru guests.
Carol Lewis, the coordinator of deliveries and food donations, said she has been with Neighbor’s Table since the beginning. She said she mostly works with the other churches, including New Prospect Missionary Baptist Church and Central Presbyterian Church, which have partnered with All Saints’. In the past, the Baptist church has helped provide meals for holidays such as Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving.
She said that when she delivers the food, she does her best to keep everything as clean as possible, by sanitizing before and after deliveries and maintaining a safe distance and contactless delivery.
“We try to adhere to those practices,” she said. “Hopefully, by giving them this food, we are letting them know they are being thought about, and they have something healthy to eat once a week and can make one less trip to the store.”
Lewis said the increase in demand for food has put a strain on a lot of the appliances in the church’s kitchen. She said the church partnered with the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, and the alliance was able to provide the church a bigger refrigerator because a lot of food purchased is in bulk.
“We also need to get a new range and a convection oven at some point,” she said. “We had not planned on cooking for that many, so it’s a lot more work, because it is about three times what we normally do.”
She said that considering the people who are unemployed and how those numbers continue to rise, that’s part of what led to more people being in need of the food right now.
“We don’t ask any questions. If someone shows up, we will feed them,” McLellan said. “Somehow, we have never run out of food. We don’t take any data, and there is no requirement to qualify, and we don’t keep any kind of record.”
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Staff writer Sam Pierce can be reached at (501) 244-4314 or firstname.lastname@example.org.