Give a little bit

Renee Rosenow

About 9,000 people in Eau Claire are “food insecure,” meaning they cannot afford groceries at all or not enough to provide adequate nutrition.

The Community Table’s interim director Hollie Moe said that is a clear indicator of the genuine need for free meals in Eau Claire, especially now that food and gas costs are rising.

That’s why The Community Table, 1300 First Ave., has been serving one hot meal every day, 365 days a year for the past 15 years. Moe said it is the only non-profit organization in Eau Claire to serve a free meal to every one who comes to its door, no questions asked.

Since Moe, a 2007 UW-Eau Claire Spanish graduate, first became involved with The Community Table two years ago, the average number of meals increased from an average of 100 to 125. Just three weeks ago, The Community Table served more than 180 meals in one day.

Every day, a team of volunteers comes to The Community Table to prepare the meal, serve and clean. About half of the teams are church groups, though Moe said many university organizations also volunteer.

One of those is Circle K, an Eau Claire’s community service organization. The Circle K adviser, Donna Raleigh, said they try to serve at least twice a year.

“College kids often have enough to eat,” Raleigh said. “It’s eye-opening for them to see people in the community who don’t, especially children.”

Moe said that because Eau Claire has such a high cost of living relative to other cities in the state, its level of poverty is also disproportionately higher.

“We’re seeing lots of new faces down here, lots more families than we used to see,” Moe said. “That might seem like a negative but we really consider it a positive thing because we know there are families and children out there who need our services and we’re happy to provide that for them.”

Moe said the rising number of daily guests is partly because of better outreach on The Community Table’s part, but she knows the falling economy has affected that as well. She said many of their guests work multiple jobs, and stop by The Community Table between paychecks when their incomes can’t support all of their bills.

Raleigh said The Community Table’s guests almost always line up a half-hour before serving is even scheduled to begin, often snacking and drinking coffee that The Community Table provides to ward off hunger pangs.

“For many, this is the only meal they get all day,” Raleigh said.

Senior Ashley Sommer is Circle K’s service director and has volunteered at The Community Table at least seven times since her freshman year.

“I think it’s so important because I have a hard time seeing people when they don’t have food,” Sommer said. “People can’t function when they can’t eat.”

She said many of the guests ask to take seconds home with them, because their need for food is so great.

“When you think of Eau Claire, most people have no idea that’s going on,” Sommer said.

The Community Table is a United Way organization and works closely with area food pantries. Each meal includes at least three ounces of protein, fruit, vegetables, milk, bread and/or starch and dessert. Moe said meals range from lasagna to hot dish to tacos, sloppy joes, soups and sandwiches.

“They eat very well down here,” Moe said.

Sommer said Circle K would like to volunteer at The Community Table more often, but the cost of providing food for the meal limits their ability to do so. Sommer said they try to include the cost of about 149 meals per volunteer session in their budget and occasionally request funds from The Foundation’s Student Organizations Opportunities Fund.

How to volunteer

Sommer said volunteering is “definitely worth the time,” and encourages others to volunteer at The Community Table, even if they don’t belong to an organization.

For those who want to volunteer, Moe said the best place to start is to visit www.thecommunitytable.org/calendar.html to pick a date for their team of about six to 10 people.

Moe said The Community Table is always looking for new volunteer teams to serve.

Since their volunteer schedule through the holidays is now nearly filled, Moe said it’s usually best to plan about a semester ahead to guarantee a spot.

The Community Table serves meals from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays; 5 to 6:15 p.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays; and 3 to 4 p.m. on Sundays.

Federal grants and individual donations allow The Community Table to help organizations who can’t afford to provide food, especially student groups with minimal budgets.

Besides cooking, serving and cleaning, teams can also plan their own menus or get advice from The Community Table for meal ideas and how much food to prepare.

Most teams purchase their own food, usually for about $100, or provide The Community Table with a donation to purchase groceries below-cost from Feed My People Food Bank, 331 Putnam St.

Sommer said she also receives occasional e-mails from The Community Table when days are coming up without volunteer signups. A team could sign up to be on call to volunteer when that happens, without being required to provide the food.

“It’s just really the people power we’re looking for there,” Moe said.

The Community Table also provides numerous service learning opportunities for such behind-the-scenes projects as marketing, data entry or Web design.

Building a community

Moe began volunteering on weekends as an Eau Claire student and said that really enabled her to become a part of the greater community beyond the university.

“It’s very possible to get comfortable in your own life and in your own circle,” Moe said. “Eau Claire is a wonderful, wonderful community with lots of great things going on and so sometimes it’s easy to overlook people who don’t have as much, and not only to overlook them, but to not realize how important they are to the community.”

Beyond providing a meal to those who need it, Moe said The Community Table is really about bringing the community together.

“Our regular volunteers get to know our regular guests,” she said, “and it’s really just a time for people to sit down and share a meal together and learn a little bit about the people who live in your community.”

Raleigh said Circle K often visits with the guests if they have time after serving the meal. One thing she said she appreciates most is how grateful they are to receive help. Even though their circumstances are less than ideal, she said most of the guests maintain a positive attitude and make jokes.

Moe said bringing in volunteer groups is not only practical, but is the best way to spread poverty awareness through word of mouth.

“We truly believe that by getting all of these different groups of volunteers in here, experiencing what it’s like to be down here, word is going to travel across the city,” Moe said. “They’re going to tell people what they saw down here.”

The Community Table’s greater mission is that awareness will unite the community and break down the concept of “us and them,” the haves versus the have-nots.