Food preparation in College United Methodist Church’s kitchen
Lori Sleeman breaks apart rolls while Tom Plant slices pork tenderloin while preparing Tuesday night’s holiday meal at the Neighbor to Neighbor Soup Kitchen at College United Methodist Church. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

On one end of a long, rectangular metal food prep area late Tuesday afternoon, Tom Plant slices pork tenderloin and Larry Sleeman cuts into a juicy turkey breast. On another corner, Lori Sleeman breaks apart rolls just before setting them on top of an oven for warming.

Glenda Plant, meanwhile, has an eye on everything going on — answering questions that pop up from the others while preparing gravy to go with the mashed potatoes. She’s been doing this for the better part of two decades — only missing on a few occasions when her husband went on sabbatical.

The Neighbor to Neighbor Soup Kitchen at Philomath’s College United Methodist Church is getting ready to serve its latest hot meal — an offering that’s been in place since the spring of 1998.

“Everyone’s welcome. No one checks in, no one gives names,” Plant, the program’s coordinator, said when asked what she would tell someone who might be hesitant to pick up a meal. “We don’t ask questions and we greet everyone that comes and we’re glad to give them a meal — whether they’re destitute or just don’t want to cook that night.”

Glenda Plant, coordinator, has been involved with the program since its inception in 1998. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Plant hesitates and chuckles.

“We’ve had some who just want a hot meal that they didn’t have to plan.”

Although “soup kitchen” is part of the operation’s name, soup has actually been served only a few times. For the most part, the volunteers are putting together hot meals.

“We tried soup one time with this takeout and we thought ‘naw,’” Plant said. “Even before, we seldom just had soup. We usually have a hot dish of some kind — a casserole or a meat dish. We still try to do that now so it’s not a cold sandwich but a hot dish of some sort.”

On holiday weeks, such as on Tuesday evening leading up to Christmas, they provided a little extra for those who visited. Plant said outgoing meals have numbered between 15 and 29 — the holiday weeks bring in a few more folks.

“We’ve had people that are just a street or two over and they walk over,” she said. “We have to do the 6 feet apart and everything, but it’s spread out through the hours so it hasn’t been a problem.”

Before the pandemic, folks could eat meals right there at the church but of course that changed in March when coronavirus-related restrictions went into effect.

“In March when the bishop of the conference told all the Methodist churches that they had to stop having the inside services, that meant everything shut down,” she said. “So we’ve been doing just takeout meals since March.”

Linn Benton Food Share collects, stores and distributes food and collaborates with member agencies to bring food directly to those who need it most. The church supplements certain items but one thing they didn’t have to worry about through the pandemic has been the added cost of takeout boxes.

“That was nice that they found a way to give back to the soup kitchens in the area,” Plant said, although she believes a grant covering that cost may be running out. “At holiday times, sometimes people will donate extra to Linn Benton Food Share, so we’ll see what happens.

“We don’t know how long we’ll be doing this,” she added. “I mean, Linn Benton Food Share is also telling us to do only takeout and we have to stick to the rules that the state is going by for restaurants and eateries. But it’s doable.”

The church’s kitchen is a little on the tight side, so the usual number of volunteers has been reduced to only the two couples. Plant does the prep work without anyone else in the kitchen during the afternoon and then between 4:45 and 5, her husband, Tom, and the Sleemans help finish setting up and to get meals into boxes.

That’s the way it’s been going since the pandemic started, except for a few weeks when the Plants and the Sleemans took some personal time. Those weeks, Plant said a few other ladies came in to get the job done.

“It’s worked out but the other volunteers are really missing the weekly (food prep gathering) and seeing each other,” Plant said. “When people could come inside to eat, we’d have between 60 and — well, with holiday meals — up to 100. Having only 20 a week is a little different.”

The difference in numbers appears to be a result of several people no longer coming into town for the meal.

“I think now it’s all Philomath people,” Plant said. “Before when it was a sit-down meal, we did have a group that would come out from Corvallis. … Quite a few of them just walk now to come pick it up.”

Figuring out how much food to make from week to week is basically just a guess on Plant’s part.

“We’ve come close to running out but I usually plan a little extra,” she said. “Sometimes we have someone show up right at 6:30 when we’re trying to close it down but there’s usually something that we can give them.”

The takeout meals are distributed from 5:30-6:30 p.m. from the church’s east-side ramp that faces North 12th Street. Plant will accept donations for anyone who might want to contribute.

After all these years preparing probably more than a thousand meals, why does Plant continue to do it?

“One of the things we’re asked to do as Christians is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and we each have our own calling,” she said. “I have a talent, I have a nutrition background and I felt that was my calling.

“Others are willing to gather up clothing or go visit people,” she added. “I guess this just fit into my niche of what I felt I could do for the community and for the church.”

Plant says the volunteers don’t force anything religious beliefs on anyone.

“But if somebody asks me why I’m doing it, I feel that God’s calling me to do this,” she said.

Larry Sleeman slices turkey breast during Tuesday’s meal preparation time. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)