If you are homeless, low-income or temporarily down on your luck, you can eat free seven days a week in Spokane. You can eat at least one free meal every day in North Idaho, too. ■ The nearly two dozen nonprofits, churches and shelters that provide these free meals expect to see more patrons as the economy has worsened. ■ Here’s a seven-day “sampling” of the food you’ll find at these meal sites – and the debates you’ll hear about feeding the poor for free while the middle class struggles with rising food costs.
Monday: “This is the only hot breakfast in town,” John Olsen said proudly one recent morning. He’s head chef for the Shalom Ministry program at Central United Methodist Church in downtown Spokane. The program offers breakfast to between 75 and 150 people four days a week.
Most of the patrons eating pancakes, bacon and oatmeal were men. Some battled hangovers and poured tablespoons of sugar into their coffee to catch a morning buzz. Some had been driven out of sleeping bags from the noise of the freeway under which they slept. Many were veterans, and others, such as Virgil Joe, were morning people who live in low-income apartments.
“I come to see my compadres here,” he said. “It gets me out of my apartment in the morning.”
Tuesday: At the Women’s & Children’s Free Restaurant dinner on North Monroe, fresh flowers sit in vases atop lilac-colored tablecloths. Volunteers take orders to customize the menu of soup, pot roast with potatoes, green salad and cake. Turkey noodle or clam chowder? Yellow cake or apple cake?
“Honestly, it is all about respect,” said Marlene Alford, executive director. “Being poor does not take away their likes and dislikes. How the food is served is as important as the food itself.”
The women and children who dine here sit at round tables that encourage conversation. Some are homeless, although most are not. Many are single moms with low-paying jobs. Some have mental illness. Isolated women find friends here, and the “male-free” zone makes it attractive to women who have been abused by men.
The restaurant celebrated its 20th anniversary recently. It has well-established relationships with Spokane produce companies, Second Harvest of the Inland Northwest, and Feed Spokane, a coalition of Spokane restaurants that donates unserved dinners to meal sites. The women here often dine on Davenport Hotel fare.
The Women’s & Children’s Free Restaurant provides 30,000 meals a year, including twice-weekly deliveries to Hope House, a women’s shelter in downtown Spokane.
“This is the best place there is,” said Rebecca Wells, as she finished her soup and awaited the main course. “It helps people improve their diets, because it’s good-quality food.”
Wednesday: Union Gospel Mission, on East Trent Avenue, offers lunch and dinner seven days a week. Patrons are often asked to help clear and set tables. Attendance at the church service after the evening meal is mandatory, but as long-time staffer Dave Wall explained, “We’re not going to chase you down the street if you don’t.”
If people are drunk, on drugs or belligerent, they are not welcome. Many of the diners are men who stay as long as two years working intense recovery programs. But transients eat here, too, as do those living in the mission’s shelter for women and children. All are expected to pitch in.
“They have a chance to give back,” Wall said. “They don’t want to be charity cases.”
On a recent Wednesday, the menu – lemon chicken, herbed potatoes, mixed vegetables – prompted compliments all around the room for the evening’s chef, Steve Viers, who is in long-term recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.
“People come in broken and hungry,” said Viers. “You want to give them the best meal you can.”
The mission, a mainstay since 1951, serves an average of 500 meals a day.
Phil Altmeyer, executive director, is known for asking the tough questions in meetings with other advocates for the poor. He’s proud of Spokane for its seven-day meal sites, but Altmeyer wonders: “How many of these programs enable people, rather than (help them) become self-dependent?”
Thursday: At First Presbyterian Church in downtown Coeur d’Alene, a table of regulars chatted over scalloped potatoes speckled with ham, green beans, ruby-colored Jell-O, coffee and cake. Responsibility for this Ecumenical Kitchen lunch rotates among a dozen churches. Laurie Dorame of Emmanuel Baptist Church was in charge one recent afternoon.
“Jesus said it is better to give than receive,” she said. “You don’t find the truth of it until you do it.”
Most Inland Northwest free meal sites are faith-based. Asked why they volunteer, men and women often cite Matthew 25 in the New Testament: For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink.
Kevin Kram, director of Cherished Ones Ministries – a group that provides a Saturday evening meal in Coeur d’Alene – understands the resentment some middle-class consumers feel toward free meal programs, especially as grocery bills rise each week.
But Kram believes the value of the free meals goes far beyond food. “The misconception is that these people are all lazy and want a handout – that’s not true. People need the socialization. Rather than sit in their homes alone, when they come here there are 80 other people.”
Friday: Snacks abound, too. City Gate, in downtown Spokane, serves meals at various times during the week, but their midmorning and midafternoon coffee and doughnuts fill an off-hours need for warmth and companionship.
And at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, men and women line up at the rectory door at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes on West Riverside Avenue, where bologna sandwiches are distributed. Matthew Bolar, 68, bounded up the rectory’s steps. A small window slid open.
“One or two sandwiches?” a teen volunteer asked Bolar.
“Two, please,” he said.
Bolar, a retired trucker who says he has spent time in prison, sometimes hears people complain about the food, no matter the free venue he’s eating in. The complaints bug Bolar. “People try to help you, and you’re not appreciative? It’s stupid. You got to say thank you. It’s a duty, don’t you think?”
Saturday: Jake Quinton is 22. He is an AmeriCorps volunteer serving at the House of Charity. He grew up in a solidly middle-class family in St. John, Wash. He graduated last year from Gonzaga University. The oldest of three boys, Quinton now understands that his family’s sacrosanct meal time – “6 p.m. dinner that on a rare day we’d eat at 5:30” – provided him incredible stability.
On a recent Saturday, Quinton ate lunch (turkey casserole, fresh asparagus, salad and bread) surrounded by House of Charity regulars. He reminded some of them to get clean trays for their seconds. This is a Spokane Regional Health District rule. Just like restaurants with paying customers, these free places are inspected, too.
Many of the regulars sit in the same spot, day after day. “An 11 o’clock meal every day is something good to hang your hat on,” Quinton said.
The House of Charity was established in 1958, grounded in the soup kitchen tradition left over from the Great Depression. The House of Charity is doing fine right now. Food donations and volunteers are plentiful. But all who oversee Inland Northwest meal sites worry about the future.
The stock market jumps up then down, then down some more. Unemployment is on the rise. Will those Great Depression photos, depicting long lines outside soup kitchens, become reality again? Will middle-class donors, area supermarkets and produce companies continue their generosity if the economy drags downward? It is estimated that Inland Northwest meal sites serve 1,200 to 1,500 meals a day. How many more can the free network accommodate?
“I see someone in the future who will get laid off, and they have to pay their mortgage and they say, ‘Hey, I can eat free,’ said Ed McCarron, House of Charity director. “My hope is they feel welcome here.”
At the end of the meal, regular Mark Ferguson approached Quinton to praise the food. Ferguson’s middle-class life, he said, disintegrated due to alcoholism and divorce. “When I was married, we ate dinner at 5 p.m. – every day.”
Sunday: The Neighborhood Sunday Lunch at St. Ann’s Catholic Church, just off East Sprague Avenue, isn’t easy to get to from downtown Spokane. Yet an average of 80 folks find their way to the meal sponsored by 10 Spokane churches.
“It’s A-1 here!” exclaimed Alejandro Garcia. “You get plenty of food and take-out, too.”
Sunday is a day for reflection. So after seven days of eating free in the Inland Northwest, here are a few observations:
More men than women use free meal sites. The numbers increase greatly at the end of the month. Patrons are not asked to prove they are poor, so people of all income levels can eat free. Panhandlers holding “broke and hungry” signs can readily take care of the hungry part.
Free meals don’t get to the root causes of poverty, but the meals allow people to break bread across socioeconomic barriers.
“For those who want to get a firsthand look at poverty, (volunteering) is the most powerful view of what it means to be down and out,” said Jason Clark, executive director of Second Harvest of the Inland Northwest, which distributes more than 1 million pounds of donated food each month, including food to most of the meal sites.
Tim Smith has volunteered at the St. Ann’s lunches for 22 years. As he cleaned up last Sunday’s meal (stew over rice, salad, bread and cake) he summed up what brings him back year after year: “These are real people,” he said. “We have real conversations.”
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