Trinity Lutheran Church celebrates 25 years of community dinners

For 24-years, high school friends Peggy Brown (L) and Katherine Wamsley have worked side-by-side serving free meals twice a week to those who need them. On Feb.14, Trinity Lutheran Church celebrated the 25th anniversary of the program. They have served 208,817 meals during 2,538 dinners and logged 53,500 volunteer hours. (Courtesy photo)

February 24 - Valentine’s Day was a day of enhanced celebration at Trinity Lutheran Church as its TLC Community Kitchen reached its 25th silver anniversary milestone of serving free community meals on Tuesdays and Thursday evenings. On the menu was pork loin, au gratin potatoes, green beans, roll and cake and was given away to 46 diners.

The program’s genesis was a news story in November 1997 featuring a Eugene community kitchen. The story inspired Peggy Brown to pitch the idea to then pastor, Rev. Gerald Rabe.

“Pastor Rabe liked the idea and gave us the green light to visit the Eugene community kitchen,” Brown recalled. “We also met with staff at Food for Lane County and Lane County Environmental Health to figure it all out. Lane County conducted a Food Handlers Card group test and, with all that support, our program came together quickly.”

Brown became the Community Meal Coordinator and the program launched on Feb. 10, 1998. Trinity Lutheran Church (TLC) had a small kitchen to serve the meals for the first three years of the program until the Lutherans expanded their facility to include a bigger kitchen and dining room area. During the nine-month-long remodeling project the meals were served at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church. 

Pre-COVID, the meals were served in the dining room with a family-like atmosphere for approximately 85 people. They served diners who were seniors with fixed incomes and eager to share a meal with someone and those who were un-housed and hungry. There were regular diners who came on both nights. Six volunteers were needed to prepare and serve the meal and host a table offering fresh produce, bread and extra food.

One of Brown’s many favorite memories was the “widows’ table”.

“When we began we were so blessed and inspired by widowed women who came to each dinner and sat together at the same table,” Brown said. “They told us they could afford to dine-out but the company was much more enjoyable. I really miss that.” 

That familial dynamic changed suddenly when the pandemic required meals to be take-out only. It also significantly reduced the number of volunteers to serve the meal.

“When the pandemic shut down everything we did a quick transition from dining-in to serving to-go meals and never missed a beat,” Brown said.

They are often asked when the dining room will reopen and the answer is not likely. Many of the pre-COVID volunteers have since aged out of volunteer service. In addition to serving meals, the church’s multipurpose room is used for other activities that include quilting with large frames, which are challenging to put away and take out twice a week.

It takes two people to dish-up and serve the to-go meals. Brown has four volunteers who rotate among the Tuesday and Thursday meals. They are Leandra Matson, Louise Giarrusso, Sheila Pratt and Katherine Wamsley.

After 25-years, Brown has learned how to buy and prepare the food in the most economical and efficient way possible so no food is wasted. If there is a small crowd and the leftover food cannot be used in another meal, she delivers it to local firefighters.

“I watch the grocery specials and plan the meals accordingly,” Brown explained. “We receive amazing support from local ranchers who generously donate beef to us and we receive leftovers from other local events, only if it was prepared in a commercial kitchen. The Community Sharing food pantry has been a great partner to us. We get some of the bulk food they receive in boxes and bags that are too big to break down into individual servings.”

The twice-a-week meals are served between 5:15 p.m. to 6:15 p.m. on the east side of the church at 675 South 7th Street. The average number of to-go diners is 50 individuals.

Depending on the menu, the 67-year-old Brown begins cooking in the morning and her helper arrives between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. to set out the to-go containers on the large counter and fill them with items that are not hot. About 5:10 p.m. they put the hot food in the containers, carry them over to a table next to the door and serve those who are lined up outside. Diners step inside one at a time and tell them how many meals they want.

One of Brown’s volunteers is her high school friend, Katherine Wamsley, who has served by her side for 24-years.

“Peggy is pretty amazing and this program wouldn’t exist without her, Wamsley said. “It’s been a total blessing to work with her. The time has just flown by.” 

Brown keeps meticulous records of the program’s success. In the last quarter of a century, the TLC Kitchen has served 208,817 meals. The twice-a-week dinners have been served 2,538 times. The volunteer hours invested are 53,500.

“I am thankful for the support of Pastor Jim (Markus) and the Trinity Lutheran Church members who have made possible this valuable service to those who need it,” Brown said. “We’ve had tremendous support from the community since we started. We are truly as blessed as those who receive the meals.”