Volunteers Evelyn and Steve Ladd are adapting to the social changes in the community meal program Evie coordinates for her home community of Palisade.

With COVID-19 making a larger and larger impact each week in the area, free community meals are a way to give back.

More than 30 volunteers help serve the twice weekly community meals in Palisade, and there are community meals available in other communities as well.

Even though Gabby’s Eats and Treats is offering curbside pickup of meals at their Palisade cafe during the pandemic shutdown of restaurants, locals are making use of the free lunches provided by Loaves and Fishes Minnesota at Bethel Lutheran Church in the tiny village.

Ladd has been coordinating the free lunch program for more than two years. She commented last week that the numbers have gone from less than 20 lunches served per day to over 50 on March 23 and more than 70 on March 26.

“We have changed our service to protect the people who come to have lunch here,” said Ladd.  “We have a table set up in the foyer of the church and let one person at a time come in and pick up their meal. That way we can maintain appropriate distance between clients and discourage socializing in the foyer.”

Evie is trained in safe food service, but she has stepped up her vigilance because of the COVID-19 virus and associated best practices.

As they cleaned up the Bethel kitchen following food service, the couple wore latex gloves and sanitzed hard surfaces all over the kitchen, dining area, and the foyer where lunches were collected. Bottles of hand sanitizer were visible around the facility.

Even though a big part of the program is the encouragement of social interaction, that has become secondary in the short term as people increasingly need a place to get a hot meal they can take home.

Palisade City Clerk, Maureen Mischler, said last week that with so many children home from school in the town, many more people are taking advantage of the opportunity to get a free meal.

“A volunteer from ANGELS of McGregor has started coming to collect lunches to take back to McGregor residents who don’t yet have a free community meal program,” said Mischler. “They took 20 meals back to McGregor on Monday.”

Other community meal programs, like at Aitkin First Lutheran Church in Aitkin, are also seeing an uptick in business.

“They are getting busy,” said Jason Todd, who coordinates the First Lutheran meal site. “Over the last week, we’ve definitely seen an increase.”

Todd estimated between 106-110 people showed up for the Monday and Thursday night meals last week, higher than the average of 75-90.

In addition, while the “senior” lunch provided at noon on Tuesday saw a drop (from about 50 to 37), it is expected to rise again this coming week as the meal will be open to anyone.

The church is offering a drive-through service in the church parking lot to pick up the food, running from 5-5:30 p.m. Monday and Thursday, and from noon to 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday.

“As long as we have food, we don’t turn away anybody,” Todd said about late arrivers.

Editor’s note: Zion Lutheran Church in McGrath has suspended its community meals due to the COVID-19 virus. It is unknown when they will return, and the Age apologizes for the error in saying they were still open.

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