116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Dozens of people mill in and around clothed tables, eating cake and ice cream with streamers adorning the ceiling.
This birthday party is not held for a singular person, but for thousands of people who starting receiving one specific service 25 years ago: getting access to a hot meal on Saturdays at First Lutheran Church.
The program initially started when Green Square Meals, 605 2nd Ave SE Cedar Rapids, began a program serving community members in need Monday through Friday. First Lutheran Church, 1000 3rd Ave SE, Cedar Rapids, decided to help out with a weekend day and after 25 years, does not think the need for the program will end soon.
“We wish that there were no need for this type of program,” said Vicki Hughes, First Lutheran ministry engagement coordinator. “But the number of people coming has only gone up in the 25 years we have provided the program.”
Over the past two decades, there has never been any issues with possibly having to close the program, which is “free to anyone who needs a hot meal," despite some issues with funding.
“We supplemented our own ministry and we also receive funding from the Greater Cedar Rapids Foundation, but the money from the county had been reduced drastically (at one time, and is now raised again),” Hughes said. “The church was always committed to the program, and when cuts were made very drastically, we picked it up ourselves.”
The food program spent $150 for the “birthday party” event on Saturday, and an average of $8,000 to $12,000 a year on food. The number of people the program serves also fluctuates, but is around 80 people in the beginning of each month and 120 towards the end of the month.
The thousands of people served may not be common knowledge to everyone, which is an issue that, through years of volunteering, Diane Selk has seen.
“I'm kind of the queen of ‘Let's be involved in the community,'” Selk, president of the hunger subcommittee in the church, said. “Nine years ago when I really started getting involved, many people didn't realize the hunger issue that Cedar Rapids has. It makes me sad to know that this (food program) is still needed.”
Associate Pastor Craig Brown said in the five years he has been with the church, he has seen the importance of its members helping the community.
“I think Iowans in general respond well to the needs of the community, which you could see when the floods happened and people helped others receive basic human needs,” Brown said. “I think it's especially important for Cedar Rapidians to help people meet their needs, because it's either us or nobody. I'm so proud of our church to be able to do that.”
Community members appreciate the service that is still provided by the church, including access to receive free toiletries once a month if they like. However, some community members like Barb Lanthop, also believe more could be done.
“I think it's a good [program], a real good one,” Lathrop said. “But I think they could use more, I think there's a lot of people in need.”