Despite COVID, Manna still feeding a need

Benny Westcott

With roots extending back to the 1970s, the Sweet Home Emergency Ministries’ Manna program has fed the hungry every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday night at the Sweet Home United Methodist Church – whose mission is to “feed the physical, social and spiritual hungers of all people” – since 2004. 

COVID-19, however, has changed much of the way it operates, from distribution to volunteers to hours and beyond. 

Previously, meals were served in the church’s dining hall, but now they’re distributed takeout-style. Overall, this change has resulted in less people using the service. In the last couple of weeks, according to Manna Coordinator Linda Rowton, 40 or 50 meals were given out each night, a drop from the pre-pandemic numbers of 60 to 70 – a change she attributes, in part, to the lack of in-person dining.

“Some of that was just the social part of it,” she said. “They knew they could sit and drink coffee with their friends, and that was happening a lot. Now some of those people aren’t coming just for the meal. We encourage people to respect each other’s space when they pick up their meals.”  

Some retrieve for neighbors and friends, she added. 

The to-go packaging, which must be approved by the Oregon Health Authority, has also proven more expensive. 

“We’re probably having to spend $300 to $400 a month on containers that we didn’t use to spend,” Rowton said. 

Then there’s the drop in volunteers. Its impact has been large enough to prompt group discussions about reducing the number of meal-service days from three to two. 

“We had tossed that around as a possible way to deal with reduced volunteers and volunteer burnout,” Rowton said, but added, “I don’t really think that’s going to be a problem.” 

More volunteers would be appreciated, nonetheless. 

“What would make me feel more comfortable is if we had a solid group of on-call people, who would be willing to fill in if someone was on vacation or got sick,” she said. “If somebody couldn’t come, they could fill in with a few days’ notice.” 

Currently, teams from the St. Helen Catholic Church and Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints alternate every Tuesday. A group from New Life in Christ (formerly the Sweet Home Mennonite Church) and other volunteers handle Wednesdays. Teams from the United Methodist and Fir Lawn Lutheran churches collaborate on Fridays. 

Manna’s menus consist of hot meals prepared in the church’s kitchen, plus dessert and snacks. A typical evening could feature catfish, hush puppies, baked beans, coleslaw, macaroni salad, fruit, dessert and a breakfast bar. The food comes from the Oregon Food Bank and the Sweet Home School District, as well as from private donors. Enough is distributed to be consumed the following day. 

In an effort to continue providing, Manna has shortened its mealtime from 5 to 6 p.m. to 5 to 5:30 p.m., another pandemic-era change. This adjustment, according to Rowton, has decreased volunteer commitment time. “When we ran the dining room,” she said, “quite often we weren’t done until 7. Now we are done by 6.” 

Manna also offers meals to the population of the makeshift homeless facility in the old City Hall’s parking lot. Last winter, it provided for those encamped on the Church of the Nazarene’s lawn. 

“We have people that check on the homeless village, how many individuals are there, and they will say we need ‘x’ number of meals,” Rowton explained, adding that this method doesn’t “find” everyone. 

“There are homeless people who aren’t living in the designated area,” she said, “so I’m concerned that if they don’t come up on their own to get a meal, they aren’t getting one.” 

Some townspeople are willing to locate those in need of meals and deliver directly to them, but Rowton isn’t yet willing to commit her volunteers to that. Also, she said, the homeless may not be the only ones who find themselves in such straits. 

“A lot of families are one paycheck away from having to move out of their apartment,” she said. “And it isn’t because they’ve done something wrong or bad.” 

Meanwhile, Manna continues serving in takeout. It isn’t known at this time when in-person dining at the church will resume. 

“I don’t want to be the mask sheriff or whatever,” Rowton said, adding that she’s keeping an ear out for the Oregon Food Bank’s advice on the matter. “I am anxious to get back to having the dining room open. We knew we were feeding more people when we were in the dining room. 

“Through Scripture we are advised to feed the hungry and help each other take care of our neighbors,” she continued. “Not everybody that’s doing this is a church-related person. But they have a desire to help other people.” 

In addition to offering volunteer opportunities, Manna accepts donations of food or money, as well as clean containers, to support its effort. Interested people can email [email protected] or call or text Rowton at (541) 401-7849.