St. Mark’s Episcopal Church has been hosting a free community lunch and food pantry on the last Saturday of every month since February, and the demand continues to remain high.
Prior to the free lunch, the church offered a community breakfast, which they began serving in May of 2011. But a lack of interest in the breakfast and low attendance forced the parish to reconsider their approach. So in February, St. Mark’s moved the time of the free meal to later in the day.
Since then, Rev. Susan Wrathall and co-chair of the free community lunch and food pantry, Dennis Moore, said they have consistently seen between 50 and 60 people each month. Wrathall recalled one lunch with 75 in attendance.
Wrathall said that when people call 211, they are often referred to local churches. Wrathall said she hands out a lot of food cards, which is difficult sometimes with budget constraints. Wrathall’s only additional funds come from a $100 line item in the church’s budget for the rector’s discretionary fund, and any additional fees she collects from performing a wedding ceremony or funeral service. She did note that the mayor and community members have given her extra food cards to hand out to needy members of the community.
In addition to food, Moore and Wrathall have heard that guests are always in need of additional toiletries. Some people who attend the lunch but do not require pantry services bring donations of goods, and some even bring clothing for Crossroads.
The food pantry, which was started alongside the free lunch last February, is stocked with donations of non-perishables and toiletries from parishioners and members of the community.
“The generosity and response to this ministry has been amazing,” said Rev. Wrathall.
In addition to community donations, Wrathall said they also use a few small grants from the Episcopal Church to stock their stores.
Those who attend the free lunch are given a number on a first-come, first-serve basis. They are then called by number, one by one, to “shop” in the food pantry. Each individual or family is given a reusable shopping bag to fill.
Most of the guests at the lunches come from within a one-mile radius of the church, with some walking from the Rhode Island Family Shelter in Conimicut. However, Moore and Wrathall said they have had people come from as far away as Cranston and Providence. Though Moore said he initially put up fliers about the lunches, now most people hear about them through word of mouth.
Moore said the lunch, which is served from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the last Saturday of the month, is unique in that people are seated and receive menus. They tell servers (volunteers from within and outside the parish) what they’d like to have and are waited on. Guests typically have a choice of three soups, three types of sandwiches, a salad and dessert. Vegetarian options are always provided. Deli meats for the sandwiches are typically bought with money from the church’s outreach fund. Between six and 24 volunteers typically staff each lunch.
The food for the lunch is donated and made by volunteers who sign up in advance to make an item. Moore said sometimes people volunteer to make more than one thing. Despite the large demand, St. Mark’s has yet to run out of food at their free lunches.
“This is, for some reason, kind of like loaves and fishes,” said Wrathall.
Moore said people usually make huge amounts of food, like five gallons of soup, for the meal. Any leftovers are sent to the Rhode Island Family Shelter.
Over the summer Wrathall and Moore said they had consistently large crowds, but they expect to see an uptick in numbers as the days get colder.
For Wrathall, the ministry services are a crucial part of the church’s duty the community.
“We have a mandate from Jesus to be the church,” she said. “That means caring for the needy. We’re living into what it is we’ve been called to live into.”
For Moore, who spends countless hours preparing for the lunches, serving food and organizing and stocking the pantry, serving the needy couldn’t be more rewarding.
“We often talk at the end of the day,” he said, referring to himself and fellow co-chair Christopher Kudla, “and say, ‘This is our favorite day.’ You really feel like you’re serving your fellow man.”