Volunteers serving up hot meals to East Texas' hungry
PALESTINE -- Volunteers flock in to cook and make donations while the hungry line up to eat lunch five days a week at The Stockpot.
The Stockpot is the only place in Anderson County that provides the hungry a hot meal free, said Jerry Thompson, president, and Lori Pike, a board member, although a lot of churches have food pantries where they give out food that people have to go home and cook.
As the economy worsens and times get tough, Thompson has noticed the number of hungry people coming in to eat at The Stockpot gradually creep up from about 50 three or four years ago to about 100 now.
"We served almost 20,000 meals last year," Ms. Pike said, observing more children are coming, especially during the summer and on school holidays.
No questions are asked, and there are no eligibility requirements for the hungry who show up wanting to take advantage of the opportunity to eat for free Monday through Friday.
Crews arrive about 9 a.m. and begin preparing the food, the doors open at 11:30 a.m., there is a quick blessing, and the hungry go through a serving line and begin eating. Food is served until about 12:15 p.m.
"We serve anybody that walks in the door," Thompson said.
Everybody gets one helping, and if there is food left over, they can come back for seconds, Ms. Pike said. The hungry can have however many helpings they want until the food is gone, Thompson added.
When they finish eating, they fold their chairs, lean them against the wall and throw paper plates into a trash can.
Most of them are very thankful and appreciative, Ms. Pike and Thompson said. "They will say that was great food," Thompson added.
Some people who come are homeless, many come just because the meal is free and some are elderly men who have lost their spouse and don't want to cook or don't know how to cook, Thompson and Ms. Pike said.
In one instance, a couple travelling across country who heard about The Stockpot walked in carrying suitcases, ate four helpings, said thank you, picked up their suitcases and continued their travel, Thompson said.
Although the Stockpot is often referred to as a soup kitchen, it actually serves a varied menu, depending on whatever food donations are on hand.
"We feed them pretty good," Thompson said.
If somebody has donated a big ham, lunch will consist of ham and butter beans, dessert and other food. In the summer, farmers and ranchers bring some of their crops. In the fall and winter, hunters and fishermen donate game such as processed deer meat.
Other days the menu might be spaghetti, a casserole, chili dogs and chips, vegetables, turkey and dressing, corn bread, soup, Louisiana rice and beans, fruit salad, hamburger steak, sloppy Joes, chili, goulash, cold cut sandwiches, salads etc.
The two high schools in town compete in a canned food drive once a year to benefit The Stockpot. Other schools, churches, businesses and the local post office conduct food drives for The Stockpot. If businesses have an event with food left over, they bring it to The Stockpot.
When Eilenberger Bakery closed, it brought in 50-pound bags of cake mix and other ingredients.
Churches, businesses, civic organizations, individuals and others donate money. The Stockpot also receives about $1,000 a year from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Krogers donates a percentage of shoppers' grocery bills, which amounted to about $2,000 last year and went to buy an ice machine.
"We have to be very careful to make sure we have enough money to carry us throughout the year, but most of our food is donated," Ms. Pike said.
Whenever The Stockpot has a need, usually businesses, individuals or the public step in to meet it, Thompson said. He cited as an example donations of window air conditioners by a business and an individual.
Currently The Stockpot has a leaking roof. "We don't know how extensive the damage is or what it's going to cost to fix it," Thompson said, citing a need for volunteer help, materials and donations. He can be reached at 903-729-1826.
Serving meals weekdays "takes a lot of dedicated people. We are all just volunteers. Nobody gets paid," Thompson said.
The volunteers are "a big mixture of a bunch of Christians" from different churches as well as persons unaffiliated with any church, Thompson said.
People find working in The Stockpot "addictive," Thompson said. He has seen people stop by while shopping downtown to see what goes on wind up working on one of the crews.
"It's a real joy to feed these people," Thompson said.
Ms. Pike, who has cooked at The Stockpot for nine years, said, "It just makes you feel good. You know you are helping people that appreciate it and need it." She added that she enjoys the fellowship.
Brenda Jorgensen has cooked at The Stockpot about two years. "When I first came, I was a little nervous about it ... but now that I've started helping, I can't not help because the need is here and I love it. It's rewarding." Ms. Jorgensen said.
"Everybody is real nice, real friendly. Most of (the people who come to eat) really appreciate what we do, and the people that work in here are special people ... They do it from the heart," she added.
The Monday crew consists mostly of Crockett Road Church of Christ members. The Tuesday crew is mostly members of First Baptist Church. The Wednesday crew is mostly from First Presbyterian Church.
Sacred Heart Catholic Church has four crews that take turns cooking once a month on Thursdays. Volunteers from the Multi-Cultural Center and Cedar Creek Baptist Church cook on Fridays.
More volunteers are always needed, Thompson said.
Although churches help staff and make donations to The Stockpot, it is an independent agency not sponsored by any one religion or denomination. The Stockpot was organized in May 1984 by a small group of caring citizens and is a nonprofit, tax exempt 501(c)3 group, according to an information sheet. It is housed in the west end of the First Presbyterian Church complex.