NEWARK — For most of us, we are wrapping up several days of feasting.
But a recent visit to the Newark Free Lunch Program in the basement of the Emmanuel United Methodist Church is a sobering reminder that a good, hot meal is harder for others to come by.
At noon every Tuesday through Thursday, volunteers serve up some home cooking to those in need. The program started in 1993 with Art and Elsie Deys, who began with a vision of providing a free Thanksgiving dinner. Last year, the Newark Free Lunch Program served over 9,000 meals, according to current director Manny Crespo.
“Our motto is if you’re hungry, come in. No questions asked,” said Nancy Welcher, a church member and volunteer.
On a recent Wednesday morning, Crespo was visiting with clients in the basement well before lunch was ready. He said a large pot of coffee is put on early and people are welcome to come in before the noon serving time to chat and play cards.
The program operates year round and sees higher numbers in the fall and winter, said Crespo — who believes more people need help these days. Welcher agrees.
“There are people living behind Wegmans in a tent in the winter,” she said. “That’s not OK and that happens.”
In the early part of the month the program sees about 35 to 40 people coming in for lunch; by the end of the month, when food stamps or other benefits may be running out, the number jumps to between 50 and 60, Crespo said. The space can accommodate about 75 people.
Different volunteers pick a day to cook; Crespo and his wife, Alice, are in the kitchen on Tuesdays. On this Wednesday, volunteers Maria Fruci and Kim Wentworth were cooking up hash browns and 10 quiches — a vegetarian selection, sausage and ham. Applesauce was also served. The cooks decide what they want to make. In the summer, Crespo said they sometimes will set up a grill for hamburgs, sausages and chicken — which not surprisingly draws in more clients.
Ten tables were arranged throughout the area and on the long serving table were several pamphlets and sign-up sheets for Thanksgiving dinner and other programs. Welcher and Crespo noted that the church also is a site for the Wayne County senior lunch program (which serves Tuesday through Friday), the Newark Food Closet (which moved there a year ago; see sidebar for story) and recently became authorized to distribute Salvation Army vouchers for those Newark-area residents experiencing emergencies. In a way, the church has become a social services hub.
“Our goal is to grow it to be one of the first places people call ... if we can’t help we want to direct them to places where they can get help,” Welcher said.
Adjacent to the basement kitchen is a pantry stocked with fixings for all the meals. Upright freezers are filled with frozen meat and other staples; shelves are filled with canned and jarred goods. Large bags of potatoes, onions and squash lay ready for Thanksgiving dinner.
Crespo is in charge of procuring the food — 70 percent comes from Foodlink where he is able to order free USDA selections and other items through a $1,400 Foodlink grant. He also shops at Save-a-Lot and Walmart to fill in what’s needed; the program receives food and monetary donations as well from individuals and such organizations as Kiwanis, Rotary, Walmart, Wegmans and more. In fact a week ago Wednesday a couple came downstairs and offered to donate a few turkeys for Thanksgiving dinner.
Now retired, Crespo said he jokes with his wife that they are busier than before. Although he wasn’t sure he was up to the task at first, he’s glad he said yes to the challenge.
“I said ‘Sure’ and God took over and showed me what to do,” said Crespo, who writes grants, fund raises and speaks publicly about the program’s mission. “I love it and there’s a need. It touches my heart.”
As the appetizing smell filled the basement and beyond, the cooks (Maria Fruci and Kim Wentworth) pulled the quiches out of the oven and discussed how to best cut them. Another volunteer entered the kitchen and complimented the day’s meal.
“Mmm that looks good,” she said.
As he waited for the buffet table to be readied, Vic Smith of Newark said he doesn’t visit the lunch program every day but is glad whenever he does.
“It’s good and it’s healthy,” he said. “I’ve never had a bad meal here.”