It’s 10 a.m. on the second Wednesday of December at the Iowa City Free Lunch Program (FLP), and volunteers are entering the kitchen. Colleen Schilling pulls out bags of frozen mixed vegetables and cartons of vegetable broth. Gale Kolbet signs the data sheet while Mary Kelly carries more bags of groceries through the volunteer entrance.
Liz Croco starts clicking the commercial stove’s igniter, but the blue flames don’t appear. There’s a trick to the old stove, so Schilling comes over to help. After a few unsuccessful attempts, large pots of water are ready to boil.
Normally, Kelly and Croco organize the food donations while Kolbet and Schilling plan the recipes and meals. After years of experience, the volunteer team is efficient. Kelly and Kolbet have volunteered at the FLP since around 2009.
“I came five years ago now. Has it been five years?” Schilling asked.
“Boy it sure went fast,” Kelly said.
“We’ll say four,” she decides.
“I’m new to this group, since August,” Croco said. “But I volunteered here with another group. I don’t know how many years. Two or three years before that? But new to this particular group.”
Croco is a recent substitute for another member, Linda, who had to stop volunteering for health reasons.
“The four of us are kinda leadership,” Kelly said. “But I have a whole list over here of people I call who bring me food cups and veggies, whatever I need.”
Kelly, Kolbet, Schilling and Croco are the second Wednesday crew, one of 35 volunteer groups that serve free lunches to anyone, no questions asked, Monday through Saturday from noon to 1 p.m.
“We’re a very simple organization with a very simple mission,” said Kai Kiser, the administrative director. “We serve people lunch, and it’s important, and it’s not super complicated.”
FLP provides lunch to around 100 people daily. Diane Platte, kitchen and volunteers director at FLP, estimates they’ll make around 28,000 meals this year. The program is a small operation with just two full-time employees, Platte and Kiser, and one part-time custodial position.
“Yeah, mostly it’s volunteer run,” Kiser said.
“Those 35 team leaders, they really are this organization,” Platte said. “It’s a very leaderful organization. They do a lot. They carry the mission forward. And then at one year someone counted our volunteers, and we had 900 volunteers in a year.”
FLP was founded in 1983 when a Lenten study group from the parishes of St. Mary and St. Thomas More, two local Catholic churches, discussed how to carry out the message of the Beatitudes, and specifically the command to feed the hungry. Two therapists from the Abbe Center for Community Mental Health Center told the group that many people in the community needed a free meal.
“They noticed that there was no free midday meal for folks,” Kiser said. “There were services offering breakfast. There are services out for dinner. There was the food bank, but there was no real option for folks who couldn’t cook, who needed something made for them in the middle of the day.”
At first FLP was a monthly event that served only six people; the next month they served 12. It was originally located in the Knights of Columbus building, but moved to the Wesley House, and in 2014, it moved again to it current location at 1105 Gilbert Court.
In just six years, FLP began providing meals six days a week and became a designed United Way agency. In 2009 it became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
While many of the volunteer teams come from different religious organizations, others come from such organization as the Iowa City Area Association of Realtors, Johnson County Democrats and Organizing for America, University of Iowa Center for Advancement and Goodwill DayHab Program.
“The volunteers amaze me. They are so strong and committed and dedicated to the mission of the Free Lunch Program,” Platte said. “The community that is sort of created here at Free Lunch also has just a lot of positive energy around it, and that is something that frankly surprised me. It’s not something that I really expected, but it’s been one of my favorite parts of this job.”
Many team members are retirees and senior citizens. Kelly and Kolbet both started volunteering when they retired, and were recruited out of St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Coralville.
“So Mary and Gale at church one Sunday did what they called a dog-and-pony show to ask for volunteers,” Schilling said. “So basically, they get up there at church, and they say, ‘This is what our church does for the Free Lunch Program, this is what the Free Lunch Program does, would you like to volunteer?’ And my kids were all coming out of high school at that point, and so I’m like, ‘Ooo yeah I should do that.’ And so I did, and it’s been good.”
Today the second Wednesday team makes a main dish of rice, mixed vegetables, meat and cheese (they also have a vegetarian version). On the side they serve grapes and mozzarella sticks. Kolbet places a cookie and candy onto the food trays, and Kelly makes a large pot of coffee.
Much of the food comes from the volunteer teams. Other times, FLP gets food from local restaurants and grocery stores. On days when they don’t have designated teams, they serve food from Table to Table and Hawkeye Area Community Action Program (HACAP).
Every team has their own approach, Kelly said. Some serve the same meal every month, others have a potluck style where members all bring a different dish. Their group rotates between four and five meals a year.
“It is always fun to sub with a different group and learn what they did, which is sometimes completely different than us and still worked really well,” Schilling said. “And we’ve been trying more and more to help Diane empty her freezer of things, too, because some groups aren’t comfortable with that.”
“Yeah, today is a good example of creative cooking with how to use up stuff to make a meal,” Kelly said.
As a policy, FLP doesn’t collect any information on their guests. People don’t have to fill out any forms or provide identification. All you have to do is get in line. At the previous location, Wesley House, they provided meals to many university students, Kelly said.
“We serve anybody who comes to us. Many of our clients are homeless folks. Many are folks staying at Shelter House, the local homeless shelter, and just generally low-income folks,” Kiser said. “They don’t have to give us any information. they just show up and get food.”
Both Kiser and Platte joined FLP after COVID-19 was discovered in Iowa last year. FLP closed its indoor dining area at the start of the pandemic and offered takeout meals instead. But recently, it started to use a hybrid model with socially distant seating inside in addition to takeout meals. FLP plans to continue the takeout option even after COVID recedes to help provide greater accessibility.
The second Wednesday team was the first volunteer group to run the hybrid model.
“I’m really glad we reopened the dining room because I hated to think people were eating in the cold,” Schilling said. FLP also provides free winter gear: hats, gloves, socks.
“I hated last winter when we had to just hand it out the door, and they had to figure out where to eat,” Kelly said.
While the timers tick down, and the food cooks in the oven, I ask the team what they like about volunteering.
“Well, I like hearing Gale and Liz,” Schilling said, and they all laugh.
“I mean, there’s a need, you know, that needs to be met, and I feel we’re here because we have the time and the ability to do this. Not everybody does during the weekday,” Croco said.
“And I’ll say most people who volunteer, they get more out of it than they give back. Do you feel that?” Schilling asked.
“You know, my family understands that the second Wednesday of the month, Mom/Grandma is feeding the hungry,” Kelly said. “I just call it feeding the hungry. I don’t call it Free Lunch. But you know, I think just because this community is so unique, they saw a need and fulfilled the need. And for me it just feels good. It’s a feel-good.”
“And our kids have come and volunteered, and sometimes they’re kinda grumpy,” Schilling said. “They’re like, ‘Oh I’d rather stay home.’ And I’m like, ‘Nope you’re coming.’ And then they always lead, they’re like, ‘Oh I’m so glad I came.’”
“Yeah, my daughter loved it, and I wish we could find time for all of them to come and do it more. But they gotta go to school again. Oh well,” Croco said.
They all share another laugh. Asked if they have a favorite memory volunteering at FLP, they think for a moment in silence, then Kelly starts laughing again, loud and warm.
“I can’t tell it,” she said.
“There’s definitely some memorable memories,” Schilling said. “I feel like almost every other time you’ll get someone who very sincerely thanks you and says something really kind about the food or you. Those are my favorite memories.”
“Mine too,” Kelly said. “It’s the folks that come through, and I’m not sure — I think maybe I’m giving them their only meal of the day. And that makes me feel good, and I’m so glad they’ve got a place to go where they can get that.”
After two hours of preparation, the lunch hour begins. A long line has formed outside, and cold air blows through the side window. The mozzarella sticks are still warming up. Kelly and Schilling hand out coffees and water through the side door, while Kolbet and Croco man the main serving table.
FLP has plans to partner with other local nonprofits to expand their services. They also hope to start translating their materials into other languages to increase accessibility and switch to sustainable food trays and utensils to keep waste out of landfills.
The nonprofit accepts donations through its website, PayPal and Amazon Smile. Organizations can send volunteer teams, or interested persons can join an existing team, by reaching out to FLP via email.
“We are welcoming new teams, so if there’s an organization that wants to send a whole team to us, we would definitely be thrilled to have that,” Platte said. “And then individuals, we’re also really excited to plug people in.”
The Iowa City Free Lunch Program provides its free meals from noon to 1 p.m., Monday through Saturday, at 1105 S Gilbert Court.