Earl “Happy” Gray always leads the opening prayer at the Saturday morning Least of These breakfast. By that time, the food line often extends up the parking lot of Summit Church, near the corner of South French Broad and Patton avenues. The folks in line come from the WNC Rescue Mission and the Bartlett Arms Apartments; from Livingston Street and South French Broad; from Biltmore Avenue and AHOPE.
The menu rarely changes: scrambled eggs hissing in two small skillets on the blue-flamed propane burners of a couple of outdoor grills; pancakes rustled up on thick, cast-iron slabs; meat — usually thick luncheon meat and cut-up sausage — and potatoes cooked the same way. An adjacent table is heaped with piles of gummies, Doritos and other wrapped snacks. Across the way, another table holds the coffee urns, water jugs, pancake syrup, ketchup, powdered creamer.
Gray is reluctant to talk. The press, he says, “have done 15 pieces on me, it seems like. They’ve made me to be some kind of icon.” He loosens up, however, when informed that the subject isn’t him but the breakfast he’s attending. “I’ve been coming here about a year,” he says. “And let me tell you something: That girl there,” he continues, pointing at a young woman who’s talking to the volunteers behind the line of tables, “When God made her, he went whole out.”
As if psychically aware of our conversation, Least of These leader and facilitator Liz Loop turns, saying, “Are you guys talking about me?”
“Yes, ma’am,” says Gray.
“Oh, man,” she says, covering her face as if to hide. “Why’s it have to be about me?”
Least of These began in 2005, started by a Montreat College student named Adam Ripley. Loop got involved in 2008 and took over completely three years later. There tend to be plenty of diners, though the exact number varies. “Some days it might get over a hundred,” she reports. “We’ve had other days where we had a lot of leftovers.”
The weekly prep work is a heady business, and Loop tackles it almost single-handedly, carting the food to her house outside Hendersonville. There she spends hours cracking dozens of eggs, cutting up meat and coordinating refrigeration; the next day, Loop drives up to Asheville, arriving around 8 a.m. A small trailer in the corner of the Summit Church parking lot houses the tables and grills.
If she’s lucky, a cadre of volunteers will be on hand to help her, but it’s a crapshoot. Somebody needs to cook all those eggs and pancakes each week, and every breakfast presents its own unique challenges.
“There have been weeks where there’ve been, like, three people here,” says Loop. “I would like to get about 10 every week — enough to staff the line fully and then a couple to talk to people.”
The funding, meanwhile, is equally uncertain. Least of These operates entirely on donations, the funds held in an account at Christ Community Church. And though the group has gotten help from MANNA FoodBank, the nonprofit “disallowed our account because our storage facility didn’t meet their requirements,” Loop explains. “So until we get that fixed, we’re having to buy everything at Wal-Mart and other stores.” Without MANNA’s significant discounts, food costs have soared.
But the indomitable Loop never seems to get discouraged. Her biggest wish is simply for more folks to help with day-to-day operations. “It would be great to be able to depend on people week to week and to get a couple of people to help during the week. Like, we have a Facebook page that I’m not able to update very often, right? If we just had a person that could focus on that, we could get the word out more.”
Since its inception, Least of These hasn’t once failed to feed Asheville’s homeless and low-income populations, and as more folks get involved, the project can continue to grow. Loop hopes to recruit a couple of people to handle the program’s social media and Web presence; others could explore new fundraising avenues. All these tasks require a significant time investment, she says, but increased attention from local organizations is making more people aware of Least of These.
And no matter what happens, those who need it can always find a meal on Saturday morning.
“It is what the Lord asks of me,” says Loop. “I just love the people that come for breakfast. It can definitely be exhausting at times, but Jesus keeps me going.”