Pinpointing the first example of meals prepared and distributed to the needy proves an impossible task, as societies through the ages have recognized a moral obligation to feed those of it’s citizens who were hungry. Evidence of providing free meals to the needy can be found through out history in most countries. Organizations providing these meals, often called soup kitchens, were in wide use in the United States during the Great Depression. According to Janet Poppendieck in her book, Sweet Charity? Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement, most societies, including the United States, rejected the idea of soup kitchens as a solution to feeding the hungry, because they stigmatized users by demeaning them and segregating them from the rest of society. Consequently the use of centrally prepared and served meals, like those found in soup kitchens, fell out of favor until the emergency food epidemic of the 1980s, when their numbers begin to increase dramatically (Poppendieck, 14).
Today, organizations providing a prepared meal for those in need take steps to reduce the stigma that receiving a free meal can cause. One popular way organizations attempt to maintain the dignity of those receiving a free meal is to have volunteers function as wait staff and serve diners on real dishes. Efforts are taken to eliminate waiting in long lines. Some larger agencies have moved to a café style operation, where diners can place an order after choosing items from a menu (Poppendieck, 247). Another way organizations providing a meal to those in need reduce the stigma associated with receiving that meal is to invite the whole community to partake of the meal. These meals are often referred to as community meals and everyone is welcome to dine. Usually a donation is suggested, but not required.
Once a month the Presbyterian Church in our town holds a community meal. The meal is served at dinner time on the last Sunday of the month and is open to anyone. In keeping with most community dinners, a donation is suggested, but not required. The idea for this meal originated with the Church’s youth group in the spring of 2011 and is now overseen by the outreach committee. In the Church’s Fellowship Hall, several rows of long tables are set with placemats, silverware and glasses. As diners arrive they may sit where ever they choose and are served the meal by volunteers on real plates. The meal consists of a meat, starch, vegetable and roll. For beverages, there is a choice of water, iced tea, coffee or hot tea. Once most diners have arrived and been served, those who wish can receive seconds, provided there is enough food left. When diners finish their main meal, several desserts from which to choose are available. Approximately 120 meals are served to diners each month at this community dinner. During these meals, the Church’s Fellowship Hall lives up to its name, as friends, family, neighbors and strangers from all socio-economic levels sit down to eat together.
Twice this past year I have had the opportunity to help at this community dinner by serving the meal, bussing dirty dishes and participating in the final clean up once the meal is finished. The experience, for me, has been a thoroughly enjoyable one. I enjoy the camaraderie of the fellow volunteers, the exchange of pleasantries with those I know and the satisfaction I receive from helping others, both the church’s outreach group and those eating the meal. Of all the tasks I do, I particularly enjoy serving the meal and clearing the plates away when diners are finished. Regardless of one’s life circumstances, being served is a treat. As a mother, I know how much I truly appreciate when someone in my house volunteers to wait on me. So by serving someone who may be food insecure a warm meal with a smile, I feel like I am treating them and giving them back some of the dignity that gets stripped away when a person has to struggle on a daily basis to obtain enough food to feed themselves or their family.