Members of First Congregational Church (FCC) participated years ago in a study which pulled data from the community showing the number of people facing food insecurity. The determination was made that not only food is needed to make a community healthy. Emotional health is equally important. After over a year of planning, Open Table began serving those in the Lowell area in 2016 each Thursday at FCC. The group promotes bringing the community together one meal at a time.
Meals and Conversation
Initially the concept of Open Table was to help provide relief for those facing hardship when it came to the affordability of putting food on the table. The group established Thursdays as an evening where a meal would be provided, free of charge, for anyone who wanted to partake. It became evident that gathering with others over a meal became a time for companionship.
Since it’s beginning three and a half years ago, Open Table has grown in concept, looking to fill a gap with busy families, single parents, those living alone, and seniors. The ability to come and have a meal without the preparation and clean up can be seen as beneficial to everyone in the community. Families can spend time together sharing a meal, perhaps before heading to a team sport practice. Those living alone or couples who find preparing smaller meals can have one less day during the week to worry about meal preparation.
Serving meals once a week has become a positive experience for those who attend. Many of the attendees who have met through Open Table choose to sit together each week. While the weekly meals take place at a church, anyone is welcome to attend.
The weekly dinner includes a main course, side dish, and dessert. Drinks are also available. And for those with kids who may be picky eaters or adults who aren’t fond of the week’s planned meal, pasta with parmesan cheese or sauce are always available.
Volunteers Make it Happen
A group, Kitchen Coordinator Volunteers, consists of people who are food safety certified. Their job is to make sure the food each week is prepared correctly and safely. This group works with the food resources Open Table has and comes up with weekly meal plans.
Food is sometimes donated from organizations like the Lowell Area School District and Flat River Outreach Ministries in addition to Sage’s Meat Processing, which donates regularly. Sometimes there’s a good sale on an item which can be used as a main component for a meal so it is purchased and a meal plan is created around the item. Needed items in meal preparation which aren’t donated are purchased. Open Table is subject to health inspections and are proud of their record with the county.
Each week an estimated 65 hours of volunteer work goes into meal planning, preparation, serving, and clean up for the Thursday meals. Some individuals volunteer each week. Groups are also welcome to volunteer. In the past, Girl Scout troops, school, and company groups have given their time to help the efforts of Open Table. Anyone is welcome to volunteer. A sheet is available each week during the meal or via the group’s Facebook page. “We could not do it without our regular all-stars and the new volunteers that come in. It is a big job but we are so glad to be able to serve our community.” says Shannon Hanley, board member for Open Table. Guests have favorites such as meatloaf and ham sliders which the team tries to incorporate on a regular basis.
Keeping Food On the Table
Thanks to donations and grants, Open Table has been able to focus on cooking and providing Thursday meals rather than fundraising. This doesn’t mean that they’re not in need of financial support. Guests can make a donation if they are inclined, but it’s certainly not a requirement. FCC provides the space each week where meals can be served and use of their commercial kitchen to prepare meals. The board remains conscious of how money is spent, looking to directly meet the needs of their guests.
On Monday, October 14, Open Table will be having a fundraising event. Tickets are available through their Facebook page or the group’s regular volunteers. The $40 per person ticket will provide the holder with dinner, drinks, and an evening of fun and entertainment at FCC. There are only 130 tickets available for the event and ticket purchase is requested by October 4. The meal will be prepared by Chef Jarrod Benjamin of South Haven. Lowell High School Fusion Rock Orchestra will be providing entertainment, beverages from local establishments will be available, and a silent auction will also take place. The goal of the event is to be able to raise enough funds to purchase a new commercial dishwasher.
“The Little Free Pantry started this year with the goal of further supporting our guests and their physical needs.” says Hanley. It’s open whenever the church is open. The pantry includes a freezer so leftover meals on Thursdays can be packaged and saved. Dry goods are also available for those to take who are in need.
Donations of items, including that extra bag of frozen corn you wonder about when you open your own freezer, can be dropped off on Thursdays. And those who may need something offered at the pantry are invited to take some items.
An open invitation to the community is offered by Open Table to come and enjoy a free meal on Thursday evenings. Served restaurant style, guests seat themselves and a volunteer comes to take the party’s order. Two years ago, an average of 60 meals were served each week with an occasional run at 100. Currently, each week approximately 150 people in the community attend and there’s room for more. Some who have come to Open Table have turned into volunteers as well.
Open Table serves meals at the First Congregational Church located at 865 Lincoln Lake each Thursday from 5pm-7pm. Each week’s meals as well as volunteer needs can be found on their Facebook page. Additionally, the group hosts a community Thanksgiving dinner each year in partnership with other local churches. Approximately 250 meals are served each year. This free meal will take place on Thanksgiving Day and is open to anyone in the community who is interested in attending.