Feeding the masses: Asheville soup kitchen meals require planning, collaboration

EASTER BREAKFAST: Lennox Cumming, 13, serves grits to Little Bear at the Pritchard Park Breakfast on Easter morning. For a decade, volunteers have provided a free, hot breakfast each Sunday at the park for anyone in need of a meal. Photo by Leslie Boyd

On a cool and drizzly Easter Sunday, Lennox Cumming opts out of gorging on chocolate and jelly beans and instead chooses to serve breakfast, outdoors, to people in need.

Recipients, such as a man who goes by the name Little Bear, are more than a little appreciative of the hot food Cumming is dishing out at the weekly Pritchard Park breakfast. “I’d much rather see him do this than an Easter egg hunt someplace,” says Lennox’s mother, Beth Cumming, a member of First Presbyterian Church, this week’s host of the breakfast.

In Buncombe County, one out of every six people is food insecure, meaning sufficient quantities of high-quality food aren’t available to them because of poverty, a lack of knowledge of how to buy and prepare it or the lack of a nearby food source, according to Asheville-Buncombe Food Policy Council.

Feeding hungry people is a huge effort, requiring careful planning and execution, says John Himmelheber, who with his wife, Virginia, coordinates the breakfast. It is a little like planning a large party every week.

Sharing the load

The breakfast program, which has been in existence for about 10 years in one form or another, is organized by Channel of Grace, which operates under the umbrella of Central United Methodist Church. Wayne Burgess, who was homeless when he first started attending the breakfast at the now-closed Zacchaeus House, now is one of the organizers, along with the Himmelhebers.

Each of the 15 churches and other organizations that rotate as sponsors supplies ham or sausage biscuits, fruit, boiled eggs and juice. Channel of Grace supplies the coffee and grits and coordinates the volunteers. Green Life Grocery donates bread and pastries each week. These donations and collaborations allow the breakfast to continue on a meager $1,000-a-year budget.

Participating organizations are asked to supply enough food for up to 100 people in winter, up to 140 in warm weather. Any food left over from the breakfast is donated to A HOPE, BeLoved House and the Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry Women’s Shelter.

Himmelheber and Burgess arrive at Central United Methodist Church at 7:30 a.m. each Sunday to get things ready. Himmelheber makes the coffee, which he says has been called the best outdoor coffee in Asheville. Burgess prepares the grits each week, and other volunteers help carry everything to the park and clean up the space.

“We leave it cleaner than we find it,” says volunteer Elizabeth Eve as she sweeps the pavement. “We don’t want anyone saying we leave a mess.”

The breakfast is one of a number of efforts in Buncombe County to offer food to people in need. Perhaps the largest such program is the Welcome Table at the Haywood Street Congregation downtown, which serves up to 450 people lunch on Wednesdays and recently began serving about 200 people Sunday dinner.

No short cuts

David Holland coordinates the effort at Haywood Street Congregation. It’s a full-time job involving coordination of donations, chefs, volunteers and food preparation. There are no shortcuts, Holland says. “Basically, what we do is take food you might feed to a governor and invite everyone to partake,” says Holland, who has 30 years of experience in the food service industry.

The food is always fresh, and everything is cooked from scratch. For St. Patrick’s Day, the traditional Irish meal of bangers (sausage) and mash (potatoes) is on the menu with roasted vegetables, peas and carrots, biscuits and homemade cake for dessert. Volunteers came in the day before the meal to peel 150 pounds of potatoes, which were boiled and mashed the morning of the meal. Normally, food prep begins about 5 a.m. each Wednesday.

Sherrill Barber, who retired from his job as a reporter for local television station WLOS a year and a half ago, volunteers to help prepare the meal each week. This day, he’s preparing the mashed potatoes. “It’s about giving back to a community that’s been good to me,” Barber says over the whirr of the electric beater. “This is very gratifying work.”

HELPING HANDS: Sherrill Barber uses a hand mixer to prepare mashed potatoes for a recent Welcome Table lunch at  the Haywood Street Congregation. The Welcome Table coordinates resources and volunteers weekly to serve Sunday dinners to about 200 and Wednesday lunches to an average of 450 people, many of them experiencing homelessness. Photo by Leslie Boyd
HELPING HANDS: Sherrill Barber uses a hand mixer to prepare mashed potatoes for a recent Welcome Table lunch at the Haywood Street Congregation. The Welcome Table coordinates resources and volunteers weekly to serve Sunday dinners to about 200 and Wednesday lunches to an average of 450 people, many of them experiencing homelessness. Photo by Leslie Boyd

What started out six years ago as “10 people around a Crock-Pot,” according to the Haywood Street Congregation’s Rev. Brian Combs, now takes some 50 volunteers to make each meal happen. Food comes from MANNA FoodBank and is donated by a number of local stores, including Trader Joe’s and Harris Teeter. The Welcome Table also is able to buy food with donated money — it has a budget of about $50,000 a year, all from private donations — and any food that’s left over is donated to other programs that feed people in need.

While most programs concentrate on just getting food into hungry bodies, the Welcome Table serves its food family-style, on china instead of paper plates, with cloth napkins and tablecloths, flowers and candles and volunteers who serve as wait staff for each table.

Communicating love

“We could have people go through a line, but there’s a level of dignity that’s missing from that,” says Combs. “I believe food communicates love better than anything, and we wanted this to be a most loving experience.”

Twice a month, the food is prepared by chefs from local restaurants, including The Corner Kitchen, Curate and Rosetta’s Kitchen (see the entire list at Chefs at Welcome Table Asheville on Facebook); the rest of the time, the kitchen is run by volunteer “Queen” Mary Littlejohn.

Anyone can dine at the Welcome Table, and no one is required to attend worship to be fed, Combs says.

The same is true with the Pritchard Park Breakfast. “We have tourists who come by,” Himmelheber says. “A lot of them don’t eat anything — maybe just have a cup of coffee — but they leave donations, and that’s always welcome.”

And, while people who have breakfast at Pritchard Park do go through a line, they are served, often by children who offer smiles and encouragement, after all are welcomed by Burgess and a blessing said over the meal. “I have slept outside,” Burgess says. “I’ve had a place to live since 2007, but not everybody is as lucky as I am. Not everybody can find a job — especially a job that pays enough to live on. People deserve respect. People deserve a hot meal.”



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