ELLSWORTH, Maine — The menu on Monday included a savory haddock chowder, a vegetable ricotta and fresh beans, with citrus fruit salad for dessert.
The venue was not a coastal chowder house in Maine. It was the lower level of St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church on State Street where every Monday for the past year a volunteer community group, Everybody Eats, has been serving up a free community meal for area residents who are hungry and for others who want to stop by.
Everyone Eats began a year ago with a couple of meetings among about 30 people and representatives from local organizations who were concerned about hunger in the Ellsworth area.
“We had about two meetings and then said, ‘Let’s do it,’” said Dave Wells of Ellsworth, one of the original organizers of the meals program. They offered their first meal on June 8, 2009, serving about 35 people. Since then, Wells said, the program has taken off. They now average 90 to 130 meals each Monday and, at one point, spiked at 172 meals.
The program works for several reasons, Wells said. First, there are people who are hungry, and Everybody Eats provides a place where they can get a meal.
“Then, the volunteers enjoy the camaraderie of working together and the guests enjoy the food,” he said. “Not everyone has a hunger problem. There is also loneliness in the community. People are able to come and eat and visit. They can stay and talk with each other.”
For Lorelei Leslie of Lamoine, who has been a regular guest at the community meals from the start, a number of things about Everybody Eats keep her coming back.
“There’s a delicious meal, of course,” Leslie said. “There’s also the welcoming and the kindness of the volunteers. Anybody worried about coming doesn’t need to be. They are overwhelmingly welcoming here. If it wasn’t comfortable, people aren’t going to come back again.”
Leslie said she cares for her two grandchildren and also helps to care for her elderly parents. She said the regular Monday meals provide her with a little “me time,” a respite in which she not only eats, but often gets reacquainted with people she hasn’t seen in a while.
“You leave feeling uplifted, and a little spoiled,” she said. “They are filling the well. It’s a place I can come so that I can keep giving to my family. You leave here feeling refreshed.”
The program relies on a group of about 60 volunteers with a core of about 15 regulars who plan, prepare, set up, serve and clean up afterward. During the first year those volunteers provided more than 2,100 hours of work and served more than 5,000 meals.
Sometimes the meals are planned in advance, but often, the lead cook and other volunteers check in on Monday morning to see what’s available
“We figure it out,” said Ron King, a retired social worker from Penobscot, who has volunteered in the kitchen from the beginning. “Sometimes we make it up when we get here.”
The volunteers come for a number of reasons; most feel the need to help others.
On a personal level, King said he likes working with people.
“I like doing stuff. I like working with people; I like taking care of people. My mother taught me that,” he said. “Also, the community needs more benefits. There’s a whole bunch of people out there who need help. This is one small piece.”
Everybody Eats relies on donations of food, services and money to make the program work. A recent grant from the Maine Community Foundation allowed the program to hire a coordinator, Nancy Daly.
Among their many goals, Daly said, is to increase the volunteer base so that there is always a reliable group of people to work the two shifts every Monday. Those extra volunteers will be needed if the organization is to meet its newest goal of expanding the program to two days, and possibly three.
There are logistics to be worked out, Wells admitted, but that’s the goal.
“Ideally, we’d have one meal a day,” he said. “Of course, it would be good if nobody ever had a hunger problem.”
At Everybody Eats, they’re working on that — one meal at a time.