Everyone needs and deserves to eat, no matter their life situations.
Numerous organizations work diligently to fill that basic need, but there are many kinds of hunger, and thus, many ways to be fed.
Every Thursday, the Community Lunch at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church does its part by feeding those who need the sustenance, but also fostering community by serving those who might not cross paths with each other.
The message is this: Come, eat and talk.
“We are a small community on a small street, and we didn’t want people to have to self-identify as poor,” says Karen Ladd, the lay pastoral leader who started the meals in 2008. “In Pittsboro, it would be just another way of shaming people who are economically challenged.”
The free meals draw 100 to 120 people in this Chatham County town, and the diners come from all over.
“If we make it a community lunch and invite everyone, we not only feed that target population with nutritious, locally produced food, but also feed people who are hungry in other ways,” Ladd says. “For instance, there are quite a few retired people in the neighborhood. They may not be nutritionally challenged, but they may be socially hungry. A number of artists in the county, they work by themselves all day and welcome the opportunity to come out and visit with one another, and artists don’t have a heck of a lot of money. It’s a social hunger.”
A big surprise: The food. Chatham County is known for its small farmers, and many donate items for the lunch. That enables chef K.T. Leary to produce meals with high-quality ingredients that would be at home in a restaurant.
A recent menu included lime-cilantro marinated chicken with cranberry-pear compote, butternut squash-apple puree, green beans and grains with béchamel sauce, vegetarian lentil-chickpea patties (there’s always a vegetarian option), spicy cabbage slaw and a salad of baby greens with beet vinaigrette (using pickled beets made by lunch volunteer Esther Neal).
Leary is a professional chef who has worked in restaurants and catering and cooked for a silent retreat center in Massachusetts. Ladd hired her two years ago.
Leary had moved to Pittsboro to care for her ailing brother and had been volunteering at the lunch, even though she isn’t Episcopalian.
“I love it,” Leary says. “People need community as much as they need food. There might be a professor sitting next to a low-income person, because the tables are communal. You build that community by eating together. I think it helps people to know they’re of value, that we need them as much as they need us.”
A weeklong process
Leary starts working on the lunch on Saturday, when she picks up produce from regular donor farmers who need her to pick up produce. Being aware of what’s in season helps her know what to expect.
She has formed partnerships with farmers and Central Carolina Community College, which donates produce from its community garden, including a recent crop of fresh ginger.
The lunch has become a community effort, she says, with the Seventh-day Adventist Church purchasing chicken, beans or other proteins. Phoenix Bakery and other shops donate desserts, and volunteers provide many as well. Leftover desserts go to the local fire and police departments.
Bakeries such as Panera often donate so much bread that Leary places it on a table for people to take home. Sometimes she’ll give away excess produce, as when okra season brought in more than she could use. Leary also takes excess fresh vegetables to the food pantry at St. Julia Catholic Church in Siler City, reaching out to the town’s growing Latino population.
She plans the menu on Saturday and Sunday, and checks the meat or beans she’ll need. She rarely uses frozen items, but may freeze gluts of peppers or onions during the summer.
On Tuesday, she does anything that can be done ahead, such as marinating chicken or preparing a fruit sauce. Wednesday is the big prep day.
Leary works in a Sunday School room kitchen that likely was intended for dispensing cookies and Kool-Aid to kids, not producing meals for 100 people. It has two standard home ranges, two refrigerators and a small chest freezer.
However, that kitchen might be changing soon. The church plans to renovate and expand the fellowship hall area, and put in a professional kitchen. Ladd says that work may start as soon as the end of November, and Community Lunch will move to the Kiwanis Club on Credle Street for the duration.
For now, three or four volunteers, sometimes including teens doing community service, help, so that on Thursday, about all that’s left to do is cook and serve.
Unless there’s a surprise. A farmer showed up one Thursday morning with bunches of microgreens. Leary added them to the salad.
“We let the farmers know that even a pound of something is not too little, so they’ll think of us and know we value it,” Leary says. “We’ll use it.”
We feed people as if everyone who comes through that door is the face of Jesus, and I will never, ever feed Jesus with plastic forks.
Karen Ladd, lay pastoral leader
Show people love
On meal day, a dozen or so volunteers set up tables in the Sunday School rooms, a hallway and on a small patio, which has become a spot where farmers like to eat. Ladd says overflow crowds have sat in the sanctuary.
They spread tablecloths, decorate the tables with flowers from the church’s garden and roll silverware in paper napkins for each place.
“We feed people as if everyone who comes through that door is the face of Jesus, and I will never, ever feed Jesus with plastic forks,” Ladd says. “We feed people with china plates and real forks. We want to show people they’re beloved. We never call people who come to the lunch clients. They are our guests.”
Many volunteers are not church members, including Esther Neal, who lives in a nearby senior community. Besides bringing homemade pickles, she often bakes pies for the lunch.
At a time when people are increasingly divided, she said eating together might make a difference.
“You sit down next to someone you don’t know, and you talk. Although I do more listening than talking,” she says.
Volunteer Harold Brown agreed. “We don’t care if you come from Timbuktu or wherever,” Brown says.
After volunteers join hands for a short poem or prayer, the doors open at noon.
A young woman in line says she’s a student, and that the lunch is good when funds get short. A group of seniors sit down with their plates, and laughter rings out. A young man in a wheelchair makes room for a woman with two active kids. On the patio, three farmers from Moncure talk about sustainable agriculture. A woman from Walgreens sets up to offer flu shots to anyone who needs them.
No matter who's in the room, Ladd sees hungry people being sustained.
“Somebody once said to one of our church members, ‘That’s so nice that you feed those people.’ To which the church member replied, ‘We ARE those people,’ ” Ladd says. “Food is our connection to life and if we can share that, we can have a life together.”
Debbie Moose is a freelance food writer and cookbook author. She can be reached at debbiemoose.com, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.
Want to go?
The Community Lunch serves a free hot meal to walk-in guests Thursdays from 12 noon to 1 p.m. in the parish hall of St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, 204 W. Salisbury St., Pittsboro. For information or to volunteer, call 919-542-5679 or email email@example.com.
Chef K.T. Leary provides this recipe, which used up a large donation of butternut squash. Let the lasagna rest for a few minutes after baking so it will firm up. Leary suggests serving this rich dish with a tangy salad.
For the béchamel:
2 1/2 cups milk
1 bay leaf
Pinch of nutmeg
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons melted butter
4 tablespoons flour
For the filling:
2 1/2 cups ricotta cheese
1 3/4 cups Parmesan, divided
1 cup crumbled chèvre or goat cheese
1 1/2 cups sour cream
1/4 cup chopped fresh herbs (basil, oregano, parsley or marjoram, or a combination)
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 teaspoon chopped garlic
1 teaspoon salt
Pepper to taste
2 large butternut squash
1 cup grated mozzarella, divided
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
To make the béchamel: In a saucepan over low heat, heat the milk, bay leaf, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Do not allow the milk to boil. In a separate saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter, then add the flour, whisking to make a roux. Cook over medium heat for 3 minutes or until thick. While whisking, add the milk mixture to the roux and simmer medium-low heat until the mixture thickens. Set aside.
Make the filling: In a large bowl, stir together the ricotta, 3/4 cups of Parmesan, the chèvre, sour cream, herbs, eggs, garlic, salt and pepper. Set aside.
Peel the butternut squashes. Cut off the bulbous parts and discard or save for another use. Use a mandoline to carefully slice the long parts of the squashes into 1/4-inch thick slices.
Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Layer the squash slices on the bottom of the pan, overlapping slightly to cover the bottom (like roof shingles). Spoon half of the filling mixture over the slices. Repeat the squash layer, then spoon on the remaining filling. Sprinkle 1/2 cup of Parmesan and 1/2 cup mozzarella over the layer. Place the final layer of squash on top and pour the béchamel sauce over it all. Sprinkle remaining mozzarella and Parmesan on top.
Grease a sheet of parchment paper and place it on top of the lasagna, greased side down. Cover the dish tightly with foil. Bake for 1 hour, then uncover the dish and cook about 20 minutes more, until a knife slides gently through the squash and the lasagna is lightly browned. Let sit for 5 or 10 minutes before serving.
Yield: Makes 12 servings.