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Wytheville cafe provides hot meals for hungry families, despite pandemic hurdles

The kitchen is still busy if not crowded. Jake Lewis prepares the next meal for Open Door Cafe.

WYTHEVILLE, Va. -- Mike Pugh sees a change in the people who are coming through for hot lunches at Open Door Café.

Since the café closed its dining room and started providing takeouts only, fewer diners are making donations for their meals. Pugh also noticed something else.

The cars that arrive for hot cooked meals five days a week are full of hungry children.

“Mom and dad are unemployed and the kids are home from school,” says Pugh, food security coordinator at Hope Inc. “Most likely it’s the only meal they’ll get that day. Thank goodness, we are able to help.”

Six weeks ago, social distancing and COVID-19 made the already difficult job of feeding hungry people 10 times harder. Today, Hope Inc. is still able to live up to its name because members of the local church and community are putting their money where their mouths are, Pugh said.

Open Door Café is one of the food missions of HOPE Inc., which stands for Helping Overcome Poverty’s Existence. The café opened in October 2018 as a “donate what you can” lunch outreach in a restaurant-like setting (a renovated tire garage).
Open Door: A renovated tire garage in downtown Wytheville


Since then, the café has served more than 20,000 meals with two staff members and a large pool of church volunteers. About 15 local United Methodist churches in Wythe and Bland Counties provide support, along with other churches, organizations and businesses.

However, the pandemic forced Open Door to reduce its number of volunteers to keep them safe from possible infection and to limit the number of people in the building.  

“When we started to-go meals on March 16, that dramatically reduced the number of volunteers from around 18 per day down to just four or five. The number of meals has stayed fairly stable, but the per-plate donation has fallen,” said Andy Kegley, executive director for Hope Inc.
Before the pandemic: More than 15 volunteers per day
 

Before the pandemic, 55 percent of the 90 meals served every weekday were subsidized through donations. Since mid-March, 85 percent of the meals are going out free.

Pugh, who is also lay leader at St. Paul United Methodist Church, said the café used to attract a varying group of diners every day. “Now it’s the same people who are coming through every day ... The group that’s coming here can’t afford to pay.”

Open Door is in the midst of receiving a three-year USDA grant that helps. But the extra money is coming from church volunteers who have to stay home and from community members who want their hungry neighbors to be taken care of, said the Rev. Lon Tobin, pastor at St. Paul United Methodist Church. He’s also the café’s dishwasher.

“People have embraced the idea that they can’t help everybody but they know Open Door does,” said Tobin. “Some of the big sources of funding have drained out, but other people have stepped up to help.”

Pugh told the story of a man in a pick-up truck who came through this week to hand over $500 in cash and say, “Keep doing what you’re doing.”
Food donations influence the menu.


In addition, the Holston Foundation recently provided a “coronavirus emergency response grant” to support the café, one of 59 outreach groups and ministries to receive a special grant throughout Southwest Virginia and East Tennessee. The Holston Foundation is based in Alcoa, Tennessee.

“The Open Door Café is an important organization in the area,” said Paul Bowman, executive director. “The Foundation supported them because we value their service. We do not want to see their work hindered or to stop because of the COVID-19 restrictions.”
Mike Pugh studies the statistics in December 2019.


The pandemic has thrown other challenges into the café’s path, including the quest to buy food when others are panicking and buying more than they need, straining the supply chain, Pugh said. Not only have financial donations helped preserve the quality of the café’s meals, but local restaurants and hotels have helped by donating the food they could not use when they had to shut down.
 
 

“The breakfast that we served on Monday? That came from a hotel restaurant: the eggs and biscuits. The bacon came from another restaurant,” Pugh said.

Using local foods has always been a priority for Open Door, and the menu has reflected that, from the salsa made with tomatoes donated by a local hospice to the pot pies made from chickens donated by a food store. The “skeleton crew” that has kept the stoves hot through the pandemic includes staff members Jake Lewis and Rita Kelley and volunteer Mildred “Mert” Stafford, a member at Mount Pleasant United Methodist Church.

The “old” way of providing fresh cooked meals in a community environment with multiple volunteers is missed, by the people who enjoyed the indoor and outdoor seating as well as the volunteers who loved the camaraderie of feeding people, Pugh said. He’s not sure what the future will look like, but he’s glad some of the children are being fed.

“That’s what I lose sleep over, is not being able to feed the kids,” he said. “I was really worried about how we were going to reach the children when school was out.”

Another feeding ministry under Hope Inc. is the “Hope Packs” program. For the last five years, Hope Inc. has worked with 18 schools and donors in Wythe and Bland Counties to provide food bags to nourish impoverished schoolchildren over the weekend.
Still going: Weekend food bags for schoolchildren
 

Since the schools closed in March, Hope Inc. volunteers have continued to provide the food bags on Friday, riding along or following behind the school buses which are making their own food deliveries to needy families three days a week.

The need for food bags is increasing, Pugh says, from 900 weekly before the pandemic to 1,029 last week.

Providing the Hope Packs during the age of coronavirus has presented its own challenges. Pugh believes they can keep the food coming – through weekend food bags as well as hot weekday meals -- with the help of United Methodists and other committed supporters.

“We have not told one person, ‘No, we don’t have food for you.’ We have not missed one meal,” Pugh said. “Our people are the heart and soul of how this happens. They never quit. We can all feel good about that as United Methodists.”



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Holston Conference includes 864 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.