Monday, November 22, 2010

Don't go hungry: Free meals available in Triple Cities

November 20, 2010, 9:00 pm

Hungry? Don't have any money?

If that's the case, there is some place you can go to get a free meal in the Triple Cities every day of the week.

At least 16 sites in Binghamton and the Town of Union open their doors for those who might otherwise not eat, or would eat alone.

Robert Roe of Binghamton gives a number of reasons he goes to the Tabernacle United Methodist Church supper every Wednesday.

"The fellowship, good atmosphere, hospitality and really good food," says Robert, 44. He's unemployed now, and the free food helps stretch his money.

His friend, Joseph Barham, 61, eats at local churches on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays.

He could fill in his Tuesdays, too, if he wanted to make his way at 5 p.m. to the nearby First Presbyterian Church in Binghamton for its "Food at First Pres."

He'd be one of about 80 to 90 diners -- or more than 100 on a good day -- there, and he could eat two or even three helpings if the supply holds.

Many hands make light labor, and the sites often rely on volunteers from Binghamton University, scout groups, local churches and temples. St. Mary of the Assumption Church, on Court St. in Binghamton, had to shut its doors temporarily when its most active volunteer had to take a leave of absence.

"The Hands of Hope Church, which uses our building, does one meal a month, and West Presbyterian Church does one meal a month," says Barbara Bartholomew, who has been involved in the endeavor for eight years. "Volunteers from all those churches come in every week to serve and clean up."

Barham, who lives in Binghamton, can dine well on the weekends, too.

The local Salvation Army began serving meals to the needy in 1885, and it's still at it, dishing out breakfast every weekday and hot suppers Thursday through Monday evenings. Major Ron Lee says they've seen only a 6 percent increase in demand over the last year, but the demographic of their diners is changing.

"What we are seeing is a lot of new faces, not just the regulars," he says. "Families for the most part, especially at the food pantries."

Ryan Thogode brings her 1-year-old daughter, Trinity, there almost every day, and to the Tab meals on Wednesdays.

If these places weren't around, she says, they'd "probably starve."

The busy volunteers at First U.M.C. of Endicott prepare a free light lunch every weekday and on the third Saturday of each month. They also serve breakfast every Sunday from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m.

"During the week it's about 15 to 20 a day, and weekends are 60 to 70," says Rev. Peggi Eller, who helps out at the church. "It's up 50 percent from last year."

It's much the same story at the Endwell U.M.C., where The Lord's Supper draws in 80 to 85 hungry people every Monday night.

"Ten years ago, it was about 40 to 50," says Karen Taylor, who has been involved in the endeavor much of that time.

Mt. Sinai's Soup Kitchen in Binghamton opens at 4 p.m. every Wednesday, but you'd better get there on time.

"By 5, we're on the road," says Traci A. Baskin, who gives her title as "willing worker."

They've opted to deliver within a 3- to 5-mile radius to those who can't come to the South Washington Street facility, "But I've done further; it depends on circumstances," said Baskin.

About 20 to 25 people volunteer periodically, but she doesn't want helpers who don't genuinely want to be there. Respect is as much a goal as physical nutrition.

"Sometimes people will starve or go without because they don't want the humiliation," she says.

Bill Palmer couldn't agree more.

"We're committed to restaurant-quality meals," said Palmer, who helps arrange the noon meals Sundays at Trinity Memorial Church in Binghamton. The beef stroganoff, chicken and biscuits, meatloaf and other meals are served on real dishes with real flatware, rather than plastic or paper.

He echoes the assessment of most who serve community meals: diners are generally fewer in the beginning of the month, but as food stamps get used, chairs fill up fast.

Another facet of Trinity's outreach is the Canteen on Wheels, which brings Saturday evening sandwiches to the Salvation Army for distribution to those who are chronically in need.

"We see some homeless people, too," says Rev. Wilfrid Guillaume, pastor of Grace Tabernacle on Glenwood Avenue. "But we don't have the resources (for all their needs) so we try to refer them to other help."

Their multicultural congregation serves hot food, thanks to the Community Hunger Outreach Warehouse (CHOW) and their own resources. Other sites rely on purchasing food at discounted prices from the Food Bank of the Southern Tier or on support from their own groups and others.

Meals -- also restaurant-style -- at the 1,700-family Our Lady of Good Counsel parish come courtesy of local businesses, parishioners' generosity and donations given for post office food drives.

"We also run a van that picks people up at St. Ambrose Church and brings them back here to eat," explains Ginny Mouillesseaux, who spearheaded the project four-plus years ago.

Michael Haynes has no problem doing the prep work and manning the stove at both Boulevard and Sarah Jane Johnson U.M. churches, but he does appreciate being appreciated.

"I have people who come in to the dinner and ask me, 'Is there anything we can do besides just eat?'" he says. "I tell them, 'Come to the next dinner at 3:30, and I'll find something for you to do.'"

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