By Rick Steigmeyer
Originally published on June 11, 2014 in The Wenatchee World. Reprinted with permission.
CASHMERE – A large sign placed out on the sidewalk in front of the Cashmere United Methodist Church at 213 S. Division St. reads “Free Community Meal Today.”
People begin to stream in to the old brick church shortly after 5 p.m. Senior citizens, some shuffling with the help of canes and walkers, the homeless and hungry are welcome here for sure. But that’s not everybody. There are families with young children, busy teachers in need of an early dinner, Crunch-Pak and packing house employees getting off their shifts. Cashmere’s Mayor Jeff Gomes, eager to keep his finger on the pulse of the community over a sloppy Joe sandwich, rarely misses the weekly meal.
Elaine Sutton drove all the way from East Wenatchee for the meal. She started coming to the Thursday dinner with a good friend who is struggling with Alzheimer’s disease and needs to get out of the house. The friend was too sick this week, so Sutton decided to come alone.
“I thought about not coming, but I enjoy it here eating with other people,” she said as she followed her plate along the row of food servers. Donna Wynne put a warm bun on the plate, interim church pastor Sue McGrath topped it with a scoop of hot spicy hamburger and tomato sauce, Tony Wright added a heaping spoon of corn. Diane Parker offered a pile of fresh green salad before passing it on to Judy Gillingham for a sprinkling of tortilla chips. An assortment of dessert pastries and cups of applesauce were there for Sutton’s selection at the end of the counter.
About 200 people are served each Thursday evening at the dinner. Poor and middle class, employed and homeless, young and old: no one is turned away. The meal is free but those who can drop donations into a box at the end of the counter.
“This is a big blessing for our family with two kids and busy work schedules,” said Annie Chalmers. She is the band director at Cascade High School in Leavenworth. Her husband, Kent, is band director at Cashmere High School. Both play in the Wenatchee Valley Symphony.
“Anytime we get to go out and eat together is a real treat,” said Kent.
Mayor Gomes said he rarely misses a Thursday dinner. “This is the greatest thing for our community. Look at the cross-section of people who come here. I hear more about the community here than I do at city hall,” Gomes said.
[pull_quote_right] About 200 people are served each Thursday evening at the dinner. Poor and middle class, employed and homeless, young and old: no one is turned away.[/pull_quote_right]The free dinners got started about two years ago after several members of the church went to a state Methodist conference in Tri-Cities, said Donna Wynne, who with Diane Parker and Georgia Risk, created the program. Wynne said their interest in doing something to help the community was triggered by a conference speaker, Michael Slaughter, who spoke about creating a ministry and changing the world for the better by expanding what you do best for others. The church’s new pastor, Sandy Liddell – she’s on temporary leave now – suggested feeding the hungry.
“‘You have hungry people here,’ she told us,” said Risk. “‘We do?’ I wasn’t even aware. That inspired us.” Risk said they were also impressed with a free dinner program the Leavenworth Nazarene Church had going.
Wynne had worked with her parents who owned a small restaurant in Dryden when she was young, so she had some experience in food service.
“She did. We didn’t have a clue what we were getting into,” laughed Parker.
“We were blind and dumb about what we were getting into,” added Risk.
The three forged ahead, using church money and volunteers to remodel the old church kitchen and put out the first meal in late June 2012. It’s a ministry to help the community, they said, but there’s no proselytizing.
“We’d love people to come to our church, but that’s not what this is about,” said Parker. The first dinner drew about 30 people. Now between 170 to 200 people a week come for dinner. Some get meals to go to bring to others who can’t leave home.
[pull_quote_left]We’d love people to come to our church, but that’s not what this is about.[/pull_quote_left]It took a while for the women to learn how to expand family recipes for eight to dinners for 200. They watched every dime to keep costs down at first. Local stores offered discounts, bargains and day-old bread and pastries. One community member donated two large freezers so they could buy meat and perishable foods in bulk. During the summer, people bring in garden produce. Now, donations pretty much cover the cost, about $200, of putting the meals together.
The women get together one day each week for lunch to figure out the coming week’s menu. Meatloaf and scalloped potatoes, spaghetti and meat sauce, beans and weenies with coleslaw, a baked potato bar or chicken enchiladas; there’s no set menu.
Other churches heard about what the Methodists were doing and offered to take a turn. At least one week a month, another church comes in to cook the meal. Other church members also volunteer each week to serve the meal or clean up.
“I’m the dedicated dishwasher,” said Ric Evans, a retired Eastmont Junior High School art teacher. “I’m taking a sabbatical from church. This is my way to serve – literally.”
Tony Wright drives to Cashmere from Wenatchee each week to help serve the meal. If there are leftovers, he drops them off at the Hospitality House men’s mission on the way home. Judy Gillingham saw the free dinner sign up the street from the house to which she recently moved, came in and said she wanted to help. She comes each week to learn about her new community.
“The health department says we should only be serving the needy, but how do you define needy? Some people need food, some people need companionship,” said Wynne.
For Eric and his wife Pete Jacobson and their five young children, the Thursday dinner out is a chance to get out of cooking and be a part of the new community.
“There’s all kinds of people who come here to be involved,” said Pete, feeding her infant daughter a spoon of applesauce. “It fosters real community spirit. It’s like Mayberry on steroids.”