Serving free hot dogs and hamburgers in the parking lot of a north-central Spokane church isn’t a paying gig. It’s the smiles that bring Julie Gardner out in a green apron to sling macaroni salad each year.
And one other reason.
“I’m also a client,” Gardner said.
On Tuesday, Gardner, a single mother of two, joined dozens of other volunteers serving free meals to the hundreds of people who gathered for the Women and Children’s Free Restaurant annual summer picnic.
“I’m very thankful that this place exists,” said Gardner, who lost her job in 2008 and sometimes needed the free meals to get by. “Someone reached out to help me, and I am paying it forward by helping back.”
Located in the basement of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church at 1620 N. Monroe St., the free “restaurant” feeds low-income women and children with hot meals three days a week. Apart from Tuesday’s picnic, Thanksgiving and Easter are the only other meals men are allowed to attend.
The event is more festive than the typical lunches or dinners provided by the nonprofit. Tuesday’s picnic boasted live music by Sammy Eubanks, face-painting and other activities for children, and outdoor seating. It’s also the most popular meal the restaurant hosts, with an estimated crowd of more than 800 people this year, up from 650 last year.
As the line for barbecue stretched around the block, volunteers scurried to keep the plates stacked, meat on the grill, and lemonade in cups. Spokane Shock football players wandered among the tables and the line, distributing free playing cards and coupons for free children’s meals at local restaurants and signing posters.
Mervin Brookins, a defensive back originally from Sacramento, Calif., has been in Spokane only a month, but he said he was happy to provide support and show the children “there is a better way to life.”
“What’s special about this event is that it creates community; there’s something about coming here that draws you in with an amazing energy of acceptance,” said Jenifer Priest, a grant writer for the Women and Children’s Free Restaurant. “When you’re poor it’s hard to be part of a community. Life itself is such a struggle.”
Events like Tuesday’s picnic allow people to come and enjoy live music, good company and food without any stress of how to get there or how to pay for it.
“As the economy has gotten tougher, it’s really become even more important,” said Ann Harder, board president, noting that the restaurant is located in the state’s second-poorest legislative district.
The food program began as a modest effort in 1988, serving fewer than two dozen poor women and children. By 2000, it provided 4,000 meals to low-income households. Last year the kitchen served 38,000 meals.
“It’s grown every single year,” said Marlene Alford, the restaurant’s executive director.
In addition to additional meal times, the kitchen added new programs over the years, including the Free Market that provides fresh fruits and vegetables to families.
“A lot of our diners don’t live near a decent grocery store; they live near convenience stores,” Alford said. “And second, they just don’t have the money to buy expensive produce.”
Tabi Payne said she recently couldn’t pay the $2.59 wanted by a local grocery store for one beefsteak tomato.
“The program helps me with milk and produce and stuff, so what I can’t get here I can use my food stamps for,” said Payne, who happily helped out Tuesday while also enjoying a free meal.
“This isn’t just a neighborhood; there are people from all over,” Payne said. “Sometimes it’s so hard to take the kids out and have some entertainment or something like this. It just costs too much for something like that.”