COLUMBIA — Cindy Bryan has been serving at the Loaves and Fishes Soup Kitchen for almost eight years.
"They used to call me the meatloaf lady," Bryan said, laughing as she dished desserts into bowls on a Thursday evening at Wilkes Boulevard United Methodist Church.
Since late February, the church at 702 Wilkes Blvd. has been the new home for the soup kitchen, which offers a free meal between 5 and 6:15 p.m. every day to those in need. At 600 square feet, the new kitchen is roughly the same size as the entire space at the old 616 Park Ave location..
Since the move, more people are coming to eat dinner, including more women and children. And more people are volunteering to help serve, said Ruth O'Neill, a member of Columbia Catholic Worker Community. The group founded the soup kitchen 30 years ago.
The soup kitchen used to serve between 50 and 70 people at the old location and now is able to serve between 60 and 90 people each night, O'Neill said.
"The numbers vary night to night," she said. "But volunteers have been serving more people on a regular basis."
More people are able to eat at one time now because there is more seating at the church. The old location could seat only 18 people at a time, while the new location can seat as many as 80 people at once, O'Neill said.
Both the guests and volunteers have more room to breathe, and there is a more relaxed atmosphere in the kitchen,O'Neill said.
"It's like driving in crowded traffic verse a country road," said Cindy Mustard, a volunteer server who is a retired executive director of the Voluntary Action Center.
Diner Ricky Williams said he likes the new location. "It's bigger," said Williams, who eats at the kitchen almost every other night. "The old place was smaller, but the food was still good."
A security guard, provided by the church, is now present during the meals.
"Sometimes there would be fights at the old place," said Bryan, who volunteers on behalf of Forum Christian Church. "I feel a lot more safer here than I used to."
The more comfortable atmosphere has made it possible for families to volunteer together, said Kay Metcalf, a volunteer for First Presbyterian Church who has been serving meals at the soup kitchen for four years.
"I'm a lot more willing and happy to serve in a safer location," Metcalf said.
Volunteers are seeing more women and children coming to dinner because they feel more at ease in the new location. "It was the first thing I noticed" Metcalf said.
The facilities in the new kitchen are easier to work with, she said. They include a dishwasher, six extra burners on the stove and larger pots and pans.
Servers can now cook at the kitchen rather than make food beforehand and bring it, Metcalf said. The large pots and pans are also nice because most people who are volunteering don't have pots large enough to make a meal for 90 people.
The congregants of Wilkes Boulevard United Methodist Church have embraced having Loaves and Fishes in their church, Pastor Meg Hegemann said.
"Any reservations that they had have melted away as it has moved along," Hegemann said.
She added it wouldn't be possible without the backing of the broader community. "We are really thankful for the community support."
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