Servers, left to right, Carmine Fioriglio; Stuart Bush, executive director of The Open Link; Donna Haws; and Dave Heise prepare to serve the evening's dinner at the inaugural First Monday Meal at the Pennsburg UCC last Monday. The dinner for those in need was started by area churches and will take place the first Monday of each month.
A new program in the Upper Perkiomen Valley is aiming to ease the burden of food insecurity in the region by cooking up hot meals for those in need. Monday marked the launch of the First Monday Meal program at the Pennsburg United Church of Christ, 725 Main St. in the borough. The program provides a free, hot meal to community members on the first Monday of each month.
Volunteers bustled around the Pennsburg UCC kitchen Monday afternoon, preparing baked ziti and chopping bins of fresh vegetables for salad, among other tasks, to get ready for the buffet-style meal.
About 25 people arrived at the church that evening to enjoy dinner and dessert. Guests were also treated to musical accompaniment in the dining room by students of local piano teacher Susan Royer. At the end of the meal, volunteers packed up leftovers for guests to take home. Other leftovers were donated to The Open Link's food pantry.
"It felt really good," Pennsburg UCC Pastor Rebecca Stevens said about the first meal. "There was a lot of community support. It was really exciting."
According to Stevens, the program was launched after members of the Upper Perkiomen Ministerium discussed the need for hot meals in the region.
"There has been a growing awareness for the need of some type of meal program in the Upper Perkiomen Valley," Stevens said, adding that the idea to host meals at the church "came as a challenge."
"We have the perfect kitchen, but limited human and financial resources," Stevens said, adding that launching the program required uniting several congregations and community groups in a common cause.
Although there are several programs aimed at combating hunger in the Upper Perkiomen Valley, such as food pantries and Meals on Wheels, the need for additional support is strong. According to Staurt Bush, executive director of The Open Link, which is a partner in the First Monday Meal, "A hot meal served once a month is a clear need," he said. "We see this through our food cupboard.
"There are a lot of folks who struggle to cook for themselves [in the Upper Perkiomen Valley]… Montgomery County, everyone knows, is one of the most prosperous counties in Pennsylvania," Bush said, "but it's shocking to see the extent" of food insecurity in the region.
According to a 2013 report by the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, 11 percent of Montgomery County adults and 16 percent of children are food insecure, meaning that they sometimes lack access to enough food for a healthy lifestyle.
Another indicator of food insecurity is the number of children receiving free or reduced-cost lunches at school. Currently, 871 children in the Upper Perkiomen School District participate in the lunch program – roughly a 30 percent increase from five years ago, Bush notes. "And it just keeps going up," he said. "Unfortunately, the situation is not getting better."
However, the efforts of those volunteering their time and skills at Pennsburg UCC on Monday shows that the Upper Perkiomen Valley community is willing to rise to the challenge of ensuring residents have access to a home-cooked meal.
Twenty-seven community members showed up to the initial planning meeting in February, despite the harsh weather that plagued the valley for much of the winter season. "It gives me goosebumps still," Stevens said about the overwhelming response of those wanting to help.
At the church on Monday, volunteers from the Pennsburg UCC, Friedens UCC, New Goshenhoppen UCC, Upper Perk Community Church, Upper Perk Lions Club, and The Open Link and the Senior Center rolled up their sleeves, donned their hairnets and got cooking.
Friedens UCC member Chris Hoffman led the meal preparation. Standing over a giant pot of water for the pasta, Hoffman said she "knows the ropes" of cooking for a large group of people, as she has worked at a soup kitchen in Pottstown for more than 20 years.
DeeDee Smith, a life-long member of the Pennsburg UCC, was also lending a hand with set up. "I just wanted to help," Smith said while arranging cakes, cupcakes and other treats on the tables. "Certainly, there is a need in the community for this." Desserts were donated by The Open Link.
"It's the partnerships that are making this possible," Stevens said.
Each month a different member of the ministerium will purchase food for the First Monday Meal. The inaugural meal was provided by Friedens UCC. Leftovers will also be distributed at The Open Link's Tuesday pantry.
"We've got people who understand all the requirements to get the food safely from the kitchen to the pantry," Bush said. "It's a really great opportunity to collaborate. [The Open Link is] really happy to be a part of this."
The First Monday Meal will be served at Pennsburg UCC, 775 Main St. in Pennsburg, the first Monday of each month at 6 p.m. The meal is free and there is no registration required.