At the St. Benedict the Moor community lunch program in Columbus, all of the volunteers have a role to play in the kitchen. Photographs by Jessica L. Marsala.

What's on the menu matters at Columbus parish lunch outreach

Originally Appeared in : 9911-5/23/19

COLUMBUS--Dick O’Neal can remember the very first meal he ate at St. Benedict the Moor Church as part of its outreach community lunch program.


“They say they feed you out at church. Then I came around here and they had…I’ll never forget it because it’s my favorite meal,” O’Neal said of the fried chicken, collard greens, macaroni and cheese and corn bread that was on the menu that day in 2008. A Columbus native, he had just moved back to the area after being released from prison. “It was good, and it was hot, and it was filling…”


Since that day he’s come back nearly every Monday and Thursday—the only two days the program operates—and is treated to a social media worthy, constantly changing menu of hot meals from spaghetti and meatballs to smothered pork chops, black-eyed peas, rice and corn muffins, as was on the menu for the first week of May.


Each week’s menu is dependent on not only the ingredients available for purchase at the Feeding the Valley food pantry, located in Midland approximately 12 miles away from the Columbus parish, but also on the culinary expertise and imagination of the program’s 10 volunteers.


Efforts are also made to serve special foods like French fries and hamburgers or fried chicken, which many residents in the community don’t often get to eat or can’t afford to buy.


“It’s not always the same. The only thing that you can always be assured of getting at the food bank would be chicken,” said lead volunteer Beverly Casimir, who has ministered to the low- and fixed-income residents of the community in this way for nearly 14 years, at least half as long as the program has been in operation. “There’s always chicken there. But other than that, sometimes it’s a surprise like what we have today is something that they don’t normally have—pork chops.”


After the ingredients are purchased, the meals are decided. They require approximately two to three hours to prepare and cook — more complicated meals are reserved for Thursdays— and serve approximately 60. A morning donut and coffee service is also provided for those individuals who like to come early.


Each of the volunteers, Casimir says, cooks differently and is given frequent chances to take the lead on different meals though some like Carlos Martinez, who has been cooking in the St. Benedict the Moor kitchen for three years, are more adventurous than she is and like to consult websites like Pinterest for inspiration.


“Cooking experience usually comes from trial and error,” said Martinez, who is described by Casimir as an explorer in the kitchen.


Martinez experimented at home with different ways of preparing the pork chops to determine which one would be the best to serve May 2.


“If I was fixing it for myself, I would’ve had those pork chops marinating last night,” he joked, acknowledging that when cooking for a large group of people, simple is better and some recipes need to be scaled back.


Casimir, on the other hand, prefers to stick to her gut—her general knowledge and experience of cooking—and doesn’t like to do what she describes as specialties.


Regardless of what type of food they serve to the residents, Casimir says that it’s their reactions that make it meaningful. Sometimes residents even compare meals they’ve eaten at the parish to something their moms used to make when they were growing up.


“I love it. It’s very heartwarming for me. It humbles you a lot when you see so many people satisfied, but you think: It’s just a little thing that you did. But it means so much to them,” Casimir said. “So it humbles you quite a bit. And I love it. I love it. I love preparing a menu for them knowing that they’re going to like it.”


O’Neal said that both the meals and the people at St. Benedict the Moor have been a blessing to him.


“I’m not a member of this church but I feel like one because that’s how they treat me,” O’Neal said in recognition of how they make sure to set aside a cup of coffee for him when he arrives late or donated clothing that might fit him. “When I come here, they treat me well. It just really has been a blessing to me. I’m thankful. I thank God for them every day.”


When asked how she sees God’s presence while serving in the lunch ministry, Casimir replied, “They walk in the door smiling and they leave smiling, and I think God’s presence is here. Another way I think it’s hard to judge sometimes the amount of people that you have to serve, and God has always been with us. We have never run out of food. So I think his presence is there, and we always say thank you God for that.”

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