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Soup Kitchen Serving Bemidji for 25 Years

Sara Wielenberg | Staff Writer | 2-29-2012

Two Bemidji churches provide sites for the soup kitchen: United Methodist and Mount Zion. Photo by: Laura Talaska
Bemidji’s soup kitchen, in action for about 25 years, currently serves about 300 people a week during their three one-hour serving sessions.
For 18 years, Gloria Joy has been the “head lady,” as she called it, of the soup kitchen. The kitchen began in 1987 and, according to Joy, it was incorporated in 1989. She and another woman started working it together years ago as part a stewardship commitment to their church.
BSU students find the soup kitchen a good way to get volunteer hours for class credit, but volunteers range from girl scout troops and clubs to business and church groups. Two Bemidji churches provide sites for the soup kitchen: United Methodist and Mount Zion.
United Methodist schedules groups to volunteer every Thursday and the meals are served from 5 to 6 PM. Joy schedules those groups six months in advance. Mount Zion hosts the soup kitchen for the same hour of serving on Monday and Tuesday evenings. There, the kitchen runs entirely on volunteers. Joy says that the number of volunteers can vary greatly. Often those that eat at the soup kitchen also do some of the work.
There are three basic categories of volunteer work: preparation, serving, and cleaning up. Joy says the preparation takes about three hours and then there is one hour of serving. Sixteen-year-olds and younger legally are not allowed to work near the heat, so most professional kitchens are divided in half with hot food preparation on one side and cold on the other.
The meals served are rounded meals that, ironically, never include soups, “unless you count chili,” says Joy. “As you can see, we don’t do anything out of a box,” she adds, gesturing at the loaded tray. This one consisted of hot dogs, sloppy joes, baked beans, sliced potatoes, fruit, cherry fritter, and milk.
Funding for the soup kitchen comes from a few different arenas. United Way and the Bi-County Community Action Program are contributors. Another source of support for the soup kitchen is the few individual donations from the community, which are always welcome.
Joy sat at a table, greeting several people by name as she kept a tally of how many people came to eat. “I don’t ask their names until I’ve seen them for a year,” says Joy. “If they want anonymity, that’s fine.”
According to Joy, some people come once or twice and sometimes because they were sent there by another organization. Others attend every meal.  “I’m all for people coming all the time,” she says. There are families of three generations who come together.
People attend for many reasons. Some come just for fun, according to Joy. They never turn away anyone who wants to eat. Joy suggests that eating for free three times a week could mean being able to afford something like a movie for the kids.
She also says that some of those who come to eat are “people who have to choose between medications and eating, or electricity and eating.” Some only get to eat on evenings when the soup kitchen is operating.
“All of us should be involved in community service,” says Joy, “helping the community in one way or another, and this is what I do.”