D espite the relentless drizzle outdoors, it’s warm inside Aberdeen’s St. Mary Church — and the smell of a freshly-cooked meal makes it seem even warmer.
Volunteers joke and laugh as they scoop sausage and green beans onto large metal trays, handing them off to eager citizens who smile in return.
The room is filled with chatter and round tables, which are set with neatly folded paper napkins and shiny silverware. The mismatched mugs contribute to the impression that the diners are a large family instead of a group of strangers.
This eclectic group eats together every Sunday through Friday as part of Feed the Hungry, a program offering free meals to anyone who needs one. St. Mary Church started the program about 30 years ago, and Catholic Community Services took it over in 2002.
Feed the Hungry serves an average of 75 people a day, but the number of diners fluctuates depending on the calendar. At the beginning of the month citizens have just been paid, so only about 40 people stop by. But at the end of the month when money is tight, volunteers feed as many as 100 people.
Judy Folden, who has served as program coordinator for 11 years, said volunteers will feed anyone in need of a meal. They make it their mission not to turn anyone away.
“We don’t ask many questions,” Folden said. “If they’re here, they get to eat.”
No “typical customer”
The volunteers aren’t stingy with the food, realizing that Feed the Hungry provides some patrons with their only meal of the day. After everyone has been fed, diners can come up for seconds.
The service doesn’t have a “typical customer.” Some diners are in their 20s, others are in their 70s. Some are disabled, others struggle with substance abuse. Some are homeless, others have jobs but need help making ends meet.
“I’ve learned that you should never make assumptions working here,” said volunteer Jeannine Bramstedt.
Folden said she felt the same way — most of the people who frequent the program are thankful and respectful. She has a large, blue binder of all the thank you letters she’s received. And every so often, a Feed the Hungry diner will approach volunteers in the street to offer up thanks.
“One story that sticks in my mind happened a few years ago,” Folden said. “One of our volunteers was eating dinner at a restaurant in town, and the waitress told him that that meal was covered, the cook had paid for the meal.”
The cook had been a Feed the Hungry diner, and when he saw the volunteer in the restaurant he wanted to repay him for the kindness the program offered.
“I think people sometimes have a picture in their mind of people taking advantage of Feed the Hungry,” Folden said. “But that’s just not true.”
Jeannine Bramstedt volunteers every Tuesday with her husband Bill Bramstedt and brother-in-law Dick Bramstedt. She serves as a grandmotherly figure for the diners, offering advice and a kind ear. She counseled one woman about a recent illness and congratulated another on a pregnancy — all while wearing her festive, floral-print apron. She provided hugs to those who needed them.
She even bakes and donates desserts — which isn’t uncommon for volunteers. The program is often in need of goods such as fresh fruit and vegetables. And Feed the Hungry workers frequently use their own money to cover the shortfalls.
Folden said much of the program’s food comes from Coastal Harvest, a non-profit that distributes to dozens of food banks and feeding programs in the region. The service also purchases food using grant money from the federal government and organizations such as United Way.
Because Feed the Hungry volunteers have to use whatever food they can find, cooks have to be creative, Folden said. She organized a competition between the volunteers to see which cook could make the best meal with the strangest ingredients.
Bill Bramstedt won.
“You can usually tell how good it was by the number of people who come back for seconds,” he said. “And that week, they ate everything.”
For the winning meal, Bill Bramstedt prepared a salmon dish. He breaded the fish with oatmeal, as Feed the Hungry always has a surplus, and topped it with lime-flavored katsu sauce. The Japanese sauce, which usually accompanies breaded pork, had been sitting on the shelf for weeks because volunteers weren’t sure what to do with it.
“When you volunteer here, you have to be really creative about what you make,” he said. “You need to be able to make square meals out of anything.”
Cooks also need to be prepared for days when there’s not enough food to go around. The crews can usually predict how many people will come by, based on the previous day’s number, but sometimes they’re wrong — and they’re left scrambling to make whatever’s on the shelves.
A much-needed role
Many of the volunteers have been around for a while — some since the program began three decades ago. Jeannine Bramstedt said she keeps coming back for two reasons: she loves working with the volunteers and she feels like she’s filling a much-needed role in the community.
“I don’t think you can do anything with other volunteers and not have a good time,” she said.
“It’s a real good feeling just to help serve the community,” Folden said. “And the people who come here are very thankful.”
And in recent years, the need for free meals has increased significantly. Two years ago, the program just served about 60 people a day. Folden attributes this to weakness in the local economy.
“The problem’s just not going away,” Folden said. “There are always people who just can’t live on what they make. Even if they work, sometimes they can’t make ends meet. This program helps them make it through the month with whatever money they have.”