The warm smell of food filled the basement of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Medical Lake on Monday as people turned out for Feed Medical Lake’s monthly lunch.
The nonprofit organization was founded seven years ago by church member Joanna Williams. “It is a ministry of the church,” she said.
Tom Durst got a bowl of soup and some cornbread before sitting with his friend Pat Jones. He said he’s been coming to the meals for five years and credits the program with persuading him to move to Medical Lake.
He was exploring the town one day and walked by St. John’s while Feed Medical Lake’s monthly dinner was underway. “Joanna was so nice,” he said. “Everybody just welcomed me with open arms.”
About half of the diners are retirees on a fixed income, but Durst said he doesn’t come for the free food. “I just come for the people and the fellowship,” he said. “I enjoy the people. What else can I say? They’re wonderful.”
Williams was diagnosed with cancer in her left leg in 2001 and told she had two weeks to live. “I said, ‘Lord, if you have work for me to do, I’ll live.’ ”
She did live, though she lost her leg to complications in 2005. She began wondering what work she was supposed to be doing when she began noticing the word “community” everywhere she looked. “Every billboard, magazine, newsletter, it just stood right out in my face.”
Inspired by discussions with her pastor, she took $100 of her own money, spent half on a health department permit and used the other half to put on a meal. “It was soup and sandwich,” she said. “I served 89 people.”
Williams hoped the meal would become a regular thing, but wasn’t sure if it was possible. “Then people started donating,” she said. “Then I applied for grants.”
Food is donated to Feed Medical Lake by several local organizations, including Second Harvest and Northwest Harvest.
Feed Medical Lake serves dinner at St. John’s, located at 223 S. Hallett St., from 5 to 6 p.m. on the second Monday of each month and lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on the fourth Monday of the month. People can also get free groceries before the monthly dinner beginning at 4:15 p.m.
Dinner is the largest of the two, attracting around 100 people compared to the 15 or 20 who come to lunch. There are door prizes and crafts for kids at the dinner as well. About two dozen volunteers help put the meals on.
Williams said she loves the feel of the monthly lunches with the more intimate numbers. “Boy have we gotten to know each other,” she said.
Williams said she knows there’s a need for her program in the community.
“People are hungry, and I can’t stand that,” she said. “I’ve been hungry. I know what it’s like.”
The program has served 972 meals so far this year and given out more than 11,800 pounds of food.
Though Feed Medical Lake does hand out food, it’s not a food bank, Williams said. “People confuse us with the food bank,” she said. “We cook the meal to feed you. Yes, we have some food to give away but we’re not the food bank.”
Though the meals are held in a church there isn’t a religious component, Williams said. “I do give them a schedule for the church, but I don’t proselytize,” she said. “I don’t want them to feel pressured. I want them to feel comfortable to come and eat.”
People are not required to show proof of income but Williams does ask for their name, phone number, ethnicity and what age range they fall in. Williams said she needs the demographic information for grant applications and needs the name and phone number in case any of the food served or handed out is recalled. “We do get recalls from Second Harvest,” she said.
The program often operates on a shoestring. Williams said she has about $400 on hand right now because she recently had to replace a failing refrigerator. But since most of their food is donated the organization can make that cash last for a couple months.
“What we have to buy is our paper products,” she said. “Sometimes we have to spend a little extra on food for the meal.”
But Williams said she would like to buy extra shelves for the new refrigerator that cost $125 each. She plans to set aside some of the money raised at an upcoming fundraiser for that purpose. The organization will put on a bake sale at Denny’s Harvest Foods in Medical Lake from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Nov. 16 and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Nov. 17.
Williams said she is happy she’s able to help her community. “This has become my home,” she said. “I just love the people here. It’s a quiet town.”