Finding Community Through Food and Volunteerism

In today’s world of ever-rising costs, it’s not a common occurrence to get a homecooked meal, made from scratch, free for the whole family. For 15 years the Morris Community Meal has provided just that at different times throughout the academic year. In the spring of 2009, University of Minnesota Morris student Matthew Johnson, along with the help of Carol McCannon, devised a plan based on the belief that food should be available, and locally and sustainably sourced. 

The mission of the Community Meal has remained unchanged and aims to bring community members together, make food using locally sourced ingredients, and value every person. 

The meal was first held in what was once the newspaper office on East 6th St because it had a commercial kitchen, but the event quickly outgrew the space. It has moved to what was once the senior citizens center but needed to change once more when they were told by the fire marshal that they were exceeding capacity. Since then, the event has been held primarily at Faith Lutheran Church on the west side of Morris, and occasionally is held at the Morris Area Elementary School or First Lutheran Church in Morris.

At the inception of the Community Meal, there was no Office of Community Engagement at UMN Morris, but many engagement programs and opportunities did exist. Now, the meal is coordinated through the Office of Community Engagement, and headed up by Sarah Eckel. 

The meals are cooked from scratch, and as many local ingredients as possible are used, Eckel says, and they are prepared and served by members of the community who volunteer. 

The meals are completely free to take part in, without so much as a free will donation requested. However, Eckel says she encourages people to pay it forward by donating food to the food shelf, volunteering in the community or with the Community Meal, or making donations to the Pulse Give to make contributions toward the community meal. Instead, the program is funded by business sponsors and donors, and relies upon volunteer help to prepare the food and the space, serve the food, and clean up afterwards.

The meal is prepared and served by volunteers, whether through a business sponsorship, or as an individual endeavor.

The volunteer work is done over two days; the day the meal is served and the day prior which always fall on a Sunday and Monday. The volunteer day is from 2:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. on both days.

When the volunteers arrive on Sunday, they are signed in and geared up with aprons and hair nets to get started on prepping the food. The meals are made mostly from scratch, and the goal is to get as much prepped as possible on Sunday so when Monday rolls around it can be ready to cook as quickly as possible.

On Monday, the big task is to get the food cooked, but it also involves getting the service line prepared and the beverage and dessert tables set. Clean up is another large part of the Monday shift, with washing dishes as they come, and getting everything dried and back in place by the end of the night.

The meal always consists of a protein, carb, vegetable and dessert served, along with gluten free, dairy free and vegan options available so the meal is accessible to as many people as possible. Much of the food comes from local sources, such as vegetables from the farmer’s market and local producers, cheese from Riverview Dairy, and milk from Willie’s. As different ingredients are needed for each meal, Eckel finds a way to source it, and has been largely successful in keeping it local. 

The ideas for the meal come serendipitously, Eckel says. Sometimes, they will have an abundance of a specific ingredient, such as a large donation of squash, and they will then search for recipes that center around squash and that can scale up well to serve nearly 200 people. Other times, the date of the meal might coincide with a holiday or season that inspires the recipe. One year, Eckel says the meal landed on the Monday before Mardi Gras, so they served gumbo and king cake to serve in the spirit. This is where adaptability skills have had to come into play, she added. Gumbo requires a dark roux, which is not an easy feat for the volume of gumbo they would need. So, Eckel’s husband, Dana, found a baked roux recipe that ended up working well for their desired outcome. 

Eckel says that the meal in September has become somewhat of a tradition in making Harvest Stew as a way to incorporate the plentiful produce provided from the farmers market that ends in the same month, and usually has an apple themed dessert due to the readily available fresh apples. February, she says, is usually some sort of comfort meal. This past February, a roast was served to 186 people. 

Many meal ideas come from students, or are inspired by partnerships with local organizations such as Conexiones for a latin inspired dish and Eckel says she’s always open to ideas.

Once the meal is over, leftovers, if there are any, are sent home with volunteers, and non-parishable items are given to the food shelf as they have room, making the impact of the Community Meal reach farther than just those served on the day of the meal. 

The meals happen usually about four times per academic year, and sometimes there are more depending on other events scheduled throught the year, as well as the availability of sponsors and volunteers. 

Funds provided to the Community Meal from sponsorships and donations go towards food purchases, posters, a meal for the Sunday volunteers, vehicle rental to haul supplies to and from the church, and any new equipment that is needed.

Sponsorships and volunteers are always need, and any business is welcome to be a sponsor. A business sponsorship is a $250 contribution and 10 hours of volunteer time. If any business or individual is interested in participating in the Community Meal, they can contact Sarah by phone, 320-589-6457, or by email, seckel@morris.umn.edu.

To keep up to date with when community meals are happening, the UMN Morris Office of Community Engagement announces them on their Facebook page, and with posters posted around town. The next Community Meal, the final of the 2023-2024 academic year, will be held on April 8 from 5:30-7:30 p.m.