Running strong as it marks its 35th anniversary, Community Meal has served hundreds of thousands of meals over the decades, all through volunteer efforts.
Community Meal will celebrate the milestone at its annual meeting on Tuesday, March 13, at 5:15 p.m. at the Community Meal site, 315 W. Third St. The public is invited to attend and light food will be served.
Pat Lucas has volunteered with Community Meal for 25 years now. She’s had many roles over the years and, for some time now, she’s been keeping records of how many meals are served and how many volunteers participate. In just the last 11 years, 95,541 meals were served. That’s an average of 8,685 meals a year. If that rate was annualized over 35 years, that is over 300,000 meals.
Jerry Tanquist has been with the organization since it was founded but is most interested in highlighting the contributions of others. The idea for it came from Susan Huntington, he said. She’s best known as the former executive director of The Dalles Area Chamber of Commerce, but before that, Huntington worked at the Mid-Columbia Community Action Program office with low income people, and realized there was an unmet need in town.
“She saw lots of homeless people coming into the CAP office, and she started talking around to folks, ‘We’ve got to be doing something.’”
So Community Meal was created, and it would operate out of First United Methodist Church, where Tanquist was pastor.
He likes to tell the story of the very first Community Meal, which was held on Good Friday, or the Friday before Easter. The food was ready, the volunteers were on hand to serve and they anxiously awaited their first ever guests.
But nobody showed up. Tanquist said he was being flip when he suggested that they follow one of Jesus’ parables about when a wedding feast was prepared but nobody showed up. “Jesus said, go out to the highways and byways and invite whoever’s there.”
But Sister Helen Hempe, who was with the St. Vincent de Paul Society, had a better idea, he said. She suggested they pray instead. They did, and almost immediately, six people showed up.
“I used to remind her of that, and she was always a little embarrassed, but that’s how we got started,” he said.
Helen Lynch, who also worked at the CAP office, was also a primary planner of Community Meal. A quiet participant who could always be counted on, she still comes down and helps with meals.
Huntington, who now lives on the Oregon Coast, was surprised to hear about the 35-year milestone for Community Meal. She’s worked on many community projects over the years, but none made her prouder than Community Meal.
“It is such a simple construct where people who have an excess of food can prepare and serve it to neighbors in need,” she said. “The fact that this program has survived and thrived for 35 years says it all about the character of the citizens of The Dalles.”
She said it’s an easy way for people to get involved without putting a burden on anyone in particular. It’s also a good way for students to earn community service hours.
Hundreds of volunteers help each year. Community Meal relies on churches, civic groups, families and individuals to step up and plan, prepare and serve a meal. They can shop for their own supplies, or use what is available in the pantry, which is chiefly stocked by the Oregon Food Bank.
Community Meal’s president is Chris Zukin, who Tanquist said has worked to bring in more volunteers to help serve. To volunteer at Community Meal, contact Zukin at email@example.com.
Lucas cites the Bible when asked why she has participated for so long with Community Meal. “Christ said ‘When you have fed the least, you have fed me.’ I just don’t like to see anybody go hungry. I enjoy cooking down there and the people that come in, they appreciate the meals. It’s just fulfilling to do.”
She’s watched little kids grow up over the years, and has heard countless human interest stories. Some of the same people have been coming for years “and you really get to know the people and they know you.”
Community Meal serves a nightly meal every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. And when Christmas falls on another day of the week, they always serve a Christmas meal, too.
Nightly attendance ranges from about 20 people to 35-40. The closer to the end of the month, the more people show up, Lucas said. While many people who eat at Community Meal are homeless, many others are not. They are the working poor whose money runs out before the month does.
While around 40 people might be the most that attend, Lucas said groups who prepare the meal are encouraged to make enough for 80 to 100 meals. That way if people want seconds, they can have them, and they can also take food to go.
That’s why there are always more meals served than people present, she said.
And while some people have been banned from coming to Community Meal for being unruly, they are still able to get a meal because someone will bring it to them, or it can even be handed to them through the door.
With the homeless population in The Dalles drawing more public attention, Lucas chafes at the idea she’s heard expressed that Community Meal is drawing the homeless here.
In fact, she said, numbers are down in recent years. Community Meal served an average of 706 meals a month in 2017, and 785 a month in 2016. But that falls below years like 2012 and 2011, when it served 808 and 823 meals a month, respectively.
However, it is well above numbers from 2008 and 2007, when just 655 and 587 meals a month were served, respectively.
Lucas also tracks how many people were served. It averaged about 36 people per meal in 2017, but was just 30 in 2007.
Over the years, the Community Meal has had several homes. It’s been at the First United Methodist Church, the Civic Auditorium and United Church of Christ before getting its longtime quarters at the St. Vincent de Paul office. It’s been there, rent-free, for about 20 years, said Tanquist.
“They’re just so gracious about it, always have been,” he said.
Having such a longstanding community project reliant on volunteers is “pretty grand,” Tanquist said. “The community can be proud of it.”