Jared and Jenny Rosalez sat down to a hot, homestyle dinner Jan. 23 – chicken-and-noodle casserole with cheese, mashed potatoes, peas, dinner rolls and peaches and vanilla ice cream.
Their kids, Nevaeh Fulk, 9, and Mencharo Rosalez, 7, even got a pre-dinner treat – a cup of hot chocolate that was steamy, creamy and sweet on a night when snow flurries flew and winds made the temperature feel below zero.
But the family, which recently moved to Fort Wayne from northwestern Ohio, wasn’t dining at home. Their dinner was at Gethsemane Lutheran Church at 1501 Bethany Lane just off North Clinton Street. The meal cost them nothing as part of a weekly community outreach program organizers say has swelled to an average of about 150 weekly attendees since the beginning of the year.
We come here to stretch our food stamps, says Jenny, 30, who says the family has been surviving on a single Social Security disability check while her 32-year-old husband looks for work as a construction laborer.
You can’t make it on $700 a month, she says, so coming here for a meal once a week is a big help.
A growing number of churches in Fort Wayne are finding there is no shortage of people like the Rosalez family as economic woes persist for many residents. Regular free or low-cost dinners and lunches are becoming a staple offering in churches, even ones in middle-class and apparently affluent areas.
A lot of people tell us they’re unemployed or underemployed, (or) they’re older people living on Social Security, says the Rev. Debra Meuter, Gethsemane’s pastor. There are a lot of (middle-class) people who are feeling the pinch of the economy in the last few years. They were doing OK, and then someone gets hurt or loses their job, and they’re not doing as well as they used to.
The Rev. Derek C. Weber, pastor of Aldersgate United Methodist Church in southwest Fort Wayne, says that church is in a similar situation.
When the congregation started its Me-N’-U community dinner about two years ago, congregation members were surprised at statistics gathered by Jared Thompson, then a high school student, who advocated for starting the program.
We found the income level in the neighborhood surrounding the church was significantly lower than in the congregation, says Weber, who says the effort continues to feed about 100 people weekly even though Thompson has moved on to college.
Most people who come here walk, and we’re on a bus line, so some people take the bus, Weber says. There are folks in need who were very invisible to us before we started doing this program. It opened eyes for people to see what was in our own neighborhood.
Area church leaders say the feeding programs fill a niche by augmenting church food banks that provide free take-home groceries.
I do think having a cooked meal, a hearty meal, is a blessing to many people, says the Rev. Jeffrey Lehn of First Presbyterian Church downtown, which offers a free lunch at 11:30 a.m. on the fourth Thursday of each month.
Many attendees live alone or have disabilities and may not cook or weary of cooking for themselves, while others are apparently homeless or are from the Fort Wayne Rescue Mission, he says.
Attendees can pick out free clothing and play bingo after lunch.
We don’t pretend it’s a perfect ministry. It’s small and maybe not as frequent as some would like, Lehn says. We hope it’s valuable and a respite, and a safe and reliable haven for people in our community.
Church leaders say attendees of free or low-cost meals generally aren’t required to be members or attend services or other church programs. However, some congregations do offer prayer groups, worship or Bible study in conjunction with the meals. Often, a pre-meal prayer is offered.
But churches entertaining the idea of starting a meals ministry can’t do it lightly, area pastors and health officials say.
The ministry may seem ideal for those with a church building that includes a full kitchen. But those who regularly feed the public must get a permit annually and be inspected by the health department twice a year, says Ann Applegate, director of the Allen County Health Department’s food and consumer protection division.
Food preparation must be done on-site or in an approved facility, and health officials urge that at least one volunteer be certified in food safety. We don’t want anyone getting sick, she says.
Churches also supply a ready stream of committed volunteers. At Gethsemane Lutheran, it takes about 20 people to shop, cook meals, set up and take down tables, wait on attendees restaurant-style and clean up.
I’m here to tell you this is a God-driven ministry, says Ruth Ann Wiegand, a retired nurse and ministry founder with a knowing laugh. Some weeks we don’t know what we’re going to do, and when we’re about to start to serve, 10 honor students from Northrop (High School) come through the back door and set up the tables.
Churches also have to come up with significant money.
Generally, food comes from bulk and discount groceries, the Community Harvest Food Bank in Fort Wayne and donations from individuals and businesses. Gethsemane, for example, gets surplus baked goods for its 6 p.m. Wednesday meals from a nearby Starbucks, organizers say.
Meuter says the program costs about $1,000 a month, and the money has come from denominational grants and congregational donations. Attendees are not asked to contribute, she says.
Aldersgate’s Weber says a second offering once a month pays for the program.
We have a congregation that is really behind it, he says. We have some good cooks in the congregation who are able to buy and prepare meals very inexpensively. The cost is really low, maybe a couple of dollars (per meal) at most.
Meals are served 6 to 7 p.m. Thursdays at the church at 2417 Getz Road.
At Gethsemane, Meuter says the community meal also feeds a need for companionship.
We realized that people saw this as their Wednesday evening together, she says. I think it’s filling what you could call a loneliness need. Neighbors brought neighbors, and friends brought friends, and now there are people who sit at the same tables and each week. People just get really close.
Jenny Rosalez vouches for that. She says her family uses part of the little bit of gas money left over after paying for rent, utilities and medical needs to come to the dinners.
It’s humbling because I had everything we needed growing up, and now I’m at that other end, she says. It’s very comfortable here. They’re so nice.
And, she adds: The food is really good.