Volunteers move weekly meals to delivery in pandemic
SARANAC LAKE — Churches have long operated as support systems for their communities in ways that extend far beyond matters of faith. This has become more apparent — and more crucial — during the pandemic, as food insecurity and isolation have hit critical levels.
The First United Methodist Church of Saranac Lake has been cooking meals for those in need for years, operating a weekly Community Supper program from the church’s basement kitchen. When COVID-19 shut down the suppers last March, “we needed to do something,” said pastor Eric Olsen. So the church and its crew of volunteers shifted to delivery, becoming a kind of ecclesiastical Grubhub.
Every Wednesday, a small group of volunteers gathers in the large downstairs kitchen and prepares a generous home-cooked meal for anyone who needs it — the number of meals has recently topped 200. The hot meals are packed and loaded into waiting cars by volunteer drivers who deliver them not only to folks in Saranac Lake but to Bloomingdale, Gabriels and Ray Brook.
“There are people who certainly need the food. Others are happy to accept it. Other people need the contact,” said Olsen recently from his office at the top of the stairs above the busy kitchen.
“There are a number of needs that are greater,” said Olsen, even than food. “People having someone who cares. At least they’re talking to somebody. At a time when going outside is a potential death sentence — and they’re not good cooks — this is meeting a number of different needs.”
The food used in the suppers comes from the Regional Food Bank, from grants and from donations. Lately, the Wednesday dinners have also included additional supplies of canned and packaged goods such as cans of soup, vegetables and corned beef hash, cereal, granola bars and jerky — and homemade cookies made by longtime volunteer Marilyn Gillespie.
On a recent Wednesday, a small group of women gathered in the large open kitchen, which follows state Department of Health regulations for commercial use, forming a brigade line filling containers with barbecued ribs, baked beans, cole slaw and mac-and-cheese.
“It started as soup and sandwiches,” said Anita Meserole as she added a freshly baked roll to the meal before sealing the top of the container. She’s been volunteering since the Community Suppers started in 2007.
“Everybody really likes the food,” said volunteer Marlene Martin. “This is home cooking.” She and Olsen note that as the suppers have become more popular, some folks have been calling up asking what’s on the menu. “We’re not a restaurant,” Olsen said with a smile.
There are 25 to 30 volunteers involved in the weekly effort, from the folks who peel potatoes, wash dishes and bake cookies to those who deliver the meals. Everyone is masked and very mindful of safety, especially as all those who do the cooking are over 55.
“The church provides the pots and pans, the labor, but it’s a community effort,” said Olsen. “People here know they’re blessed, and are giving back. Nobody expected to be doing this for a year.”
As soon as the hot meals are packed and carried upstairs in boxes by runners, they’re loaded into the back of a waiting car and sent out on delivery — about six or seven runs every Wednesday.
“It’s been going up about 10 a week recently,” said Kelly Haig of the number of requested weekly meals as he loaded boxes into the back of his vehicle. An associate pastor of the church for 35 years, Haig is a regular volunteer.
“If we’re not here to serve people,” said Haig as he closed the trunk, “we’ve got no business being here.”