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August 19, 2009 > Meals of Love

Meals of Love

By Simon Wong

Compassion is the essential ingredient of lunch on Mondays and Fridays at The Bridge of Faith, Whitman Street, Hayward.

Fifteen volunteers cater to anyone in need of a meal, groceries and clothing because of personal circumstances. The Bridge of Faith, one of Hayward's 16 food banks and pantries run by churches and other agencies, is part of the non-profit safety net that catches people if America's welfare system is inadequate or abandons them.

The church's Meals of Love Program feeds about 250 families weekly and has seen a 20 percent increase in clients in the past six months. The majority visit the church for free groceries. Some stay for lunch and, every other Friday, collect two items of clothing per person.

Breakfast for kids is served on Mondays and Fridays and the Bridge Builders Program, which tutors children on Wednesday afternoons, provides healthy snacks.

"Two members of our congregation started the program four years ago. They felt there was a need for such a service in South Hayward and connected with organizations that donate food," said Pastor Dan Slater. "Last year, Trader Joes gave us several hundred thousand dollars of food for our kitchen and clients. Lucky Supermarket and Meekland Avenue's Hope for the Heart, which supplies about 70 to 80 other food organizations, also donate supplies. Food Source donates 4,000 bags per month. About 10 volunteers sort everything on Thursday in readiness for distribution."

"Rather than dispose of items we can't use, we find organizations that can use them. Cardboard goes to Tri-Ced and food to a farmer for feed. When CVS Pharmacy took over Longs Drugs, we acquired a lot of Longs' stock and sent the medications to hospitals in the Philippines. We avoid waste," said Operations Manager Steve Gomes.

Gomes coordinates food collection, supplies the kitchen, rotates the food in store, works with the volunteers, ensures the building is clean and maintained as a safe and secure place and works with Slater.

The City of Hayward's annual social services allocation provides funding for equipment and other items such as plates and cups. The Meals of Love truck, which collects at least a thousand dollars of donated groceries per trip four times each week, and refrigerators were purchased with City funding.

An estimated 10 percent of clients are homeless. 95 percent live below the poverty line. The City requires statistical returns such as the number of different clients served, numbers of adults and children, age, approximate income, family size and status as disabled.

Johnny Crain, a retired Milpitas deputy fire chief and battalion chief, is the director of and grant writer for the Meals of Love Program. His brother Romel assists. Slater delivers an Encouraging Word at 11.45 a.m. before lunch is served.

"The handicapped, aka 'wheelies,' are served first, then seniors (over age 62). Other clients draw a table number from a tombola on arrival. After seniors, Johnny calls tables randomly so that later arrivals don't wait an eternity," explained Sarah, a former client and current volunteer.

Customers sign in for groceries 10 a.m.-noon but are not required to sign for a meal. Two lists are maintained; one for seniors and the disabled and another for everyone else. Each adult signatory is assigned a number, sequentially, according to the sign-in sheet. The food pantry has adequate supplies for about 100 people each Monday and Friday. Just as with the meals, at 1 p.m. the wheelies receive groceries first, in number order, followed by seniors then everyone else. Those not among the first hundred, may wait and see if there is any surplus.

"Most clients receive about 10 bags of groceries - meat, eggs, vegetables... whatever we obtain. On Fridays, we provide meat and eggs. On Monday, maybe not meat but everything else," explained Romel Crain.

Clients may have second helpings of lunch, additional groceries and garments if enough remains after everyone has been served. Seldom has the non-profit been short of supplies to distribute to everyone.

"This program is really a shelter for when you run into trouble,' said a mother of three academically-gifted, teenage boys. "I learned of such services three months after running into financial difficulty last year. It was so hard. I regularly feed my family from here. It's a blessing."

"The situation is depressing. We need jobs," implored a gentleman.

A whole gamut of emotions is present. Meals of Love, like similar programs, means different things to different people - hope, despair, relief, spiritual awakening, devotion, salvation.

The clients are a microcosm of the general population. Something beyond their control has dealt an unexpected blow. Nevertheless, all have their self-respect, self-esteem and dignity. Speak with them, listen to them and experience the rude awakening that life is fragile and stability unguaranteed. We all belong to the same society. Take nothing for granted.

Anyone wishing to use a food bank/pantry should call the Alameda County Community Food Bank on (510) 365 3663 or 1-800 870 3663, in the first instance, to be directed to local services.

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