How a small church transformed into a restaurant to feed the community
By Lindsay Peyton
The first Thursday of each month, the ovens turn on, and stoves are fired up at Lexington UMC. The church’s kitchen transforms into a restaurant to prepare pay-what-you-can meals for its Freewill Lunch. Volunteers show off their culinary skills and cook with an extra serving of love — which makes the food taste even better, Rev. Raegan Seaton attests. “I mean, they cook great stuff,” she said. And during the coronavirus pandemic, the meals are needed now more than ever.
“It has been so crucial in this time,” Seaton said. “There’s a lot of rural poverty in our area and food insecurity. We’re seeing an increase in people needing food, and this is a wonderful way to help.”
Fighting hunger has long been a mission at Lexington UMC, whether for children after school or older residents in town. “One of our focuses has always been to reach out and help the community,” Seaton said. “And if it’s feeding people, we’re going to do that.”
That’s why she was determined to continue the popular Freewill Lunch, despite COVID-19. “People need this. If we had to wear hazmat suits in the kitchen, we would do it,” she said.
The team, however, was able to adapt the menu and switch to to-go only options for diners. A few of the women who normally volunteer had to stay home, but others offered to step in and keep cooking.
“I’m so proud of them for keeping this going,” Seaton said. “It’s been really amazing.”
The meals are free, but diners who opt to make a donation cover the cost for those who cannot. The church formed partnerships with local businesses to cover the purchase of the food – subsidizes the rest. Volunteers also shop smart to keep costs low.
Still, that never means cutting corners when it comes to providing fresh, hot meals. “It’s never a sandwich and chips,” Seaton said. “It’s always a hot, full meal. This is a home-cooked meal.”
The menus are planned to coincide with the season. For example, for January, chili was the entrée, and for March, a St. Patrick’s Day special of ham and colcannon, an Irish dish of potatoes and cabbage.
For November, the volunteers churn out turkey, dressing, green beans, pumpkin pie and homemade bread. For Christmas, diners received a bag of homemade cookies with their meals.
Seaton loves their enchiladas and tacos. Sometimes, the volunteers even prepare gluten free or dietic options.
The Freewill Lunch started before Seaton arrived. The concept was the brainchild of Cindy Gibson.
Gibson said that her mother was a volunteer with the food pantry. She realized that participants were receiving cans of vegetables, some meat and mostly carbohydrates. “They often could not make a whole meal,” she explained. “What if we could make a meal for them?”
Gibson had heard about other communities that offered meals to the community. She did not think a daily or weekly service would make sense for Lexington, since the town has a small population of about 1,170 residents.
A monthly option made the most sense. While resources were limited in the town, she thought the local grocery store and others might pitch in.
Gibson started proposing the idea to the local ministerial alliance, adding that a free lunch could coincide with the day that the food pantry runs in town. “I approached them for about a year or longer before anything happened,” she said. “Everyone was worried that no one would come.”
Then pastor Trey Comstock, who at the time served Lexington UMC, decided to give the idea a go. Right before Comstock arrived, the congregation constructed a new family life center to allow for additional worship space and community gatherings – and it was just right for serving and preparing the meals.
The first Freewill Lunch was held in May 2018 – and volunteers hoped for 30 to show up. “We actually ran out,” Gibson recalled.
By June, 50 people showed up. “It’s just grown ever since,” Gibson said.
She even started delivering meals to people during the week who could not attend. “That grew out of the lunches,” she said. “I started with six people, and now I have 12.”
Currently, on average, the church serves about 100 people at each event, even during COVID-19. In November, they prepared 120 meals.
“The people who we have served since the beginning are really grateful for this,” Gibson said. “Even some of the people with food insecurity will scrape whatever coins they have in their pockets to donate. They really enjoy this.”
She said that even a small community like Lexington can find a way to serve meals to those in need – and she hopes that inspires others to find ways to reach out to their neighbors. “I want people to feel cared for, that’s the main thing,” she said. “One meal a month isn’t much, but we want people to know that we see them, we hear them, we get it and we care.”
In 2020, the Freewill lunches provided 1,132 meals, including home deliveries. The previous year, the church provided 971 meals.
That’s a lot for a church that usually worships 112, Pastor Seaton said. “It’s such a great thing to be able to do this,” she said. “We want to model Christ’s example of servanthood, to know God, grow together and share love. And for us, this is the way to share our love.”
By providing food, Lexington UMC nourishes neighbors both physically and spiritually. “There’s nothing better than a home-cooked meal,” Seaton said.