Athens free meal providers plan for better cooperation to fight hunger and loneliness

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB/Report for America) — Athens free meal providers met as a group for the first time ever in December to coordinate their efforts amid worsening hunger and social isolation.

United Campus Ministry Center Executive Director Mickey Hart hailed the meeting as “historic.”

“We really needed to have a meeting like this,” Hart said. “It’s a lot of individuals who care very deeply about what we’re doing, but we’ve kind of been doing it all in silos.”

Athens free meals programs have existed for decades, but rising food prices and the rollback of expanded COVID-era SNAP benefits have worsened food insecurity throughout the region and strained resources for pantry networks. Hart said he saw a role for his organization to help fill the void.

The meeting included representatives from various local churches and other organizations that have historically provided free meals in Athens. The goal, Hart said, was to strategize about raising awareness and improving access for residents.

Food trays, Snowville yogurt containers, and trays of chopped butternut squash sit out in preparation for a free meal program.
Volunteers prepare food for a free Wednesday lunch at the United Campus Ministry Center in Athens.

Ronda Clark of First United Methodist Church helped Hart organize the meeting.

“It was like opening up a firehose,” Clark said. “It was crazy. We had never really sat down and talked to each other, and it was extremely enlightening, extremely encouraging to all of us.”

Attendees agreed to form a committee to create a free meal on Saturdays. Currently, there are no free meals in Athens over the weekend, as churches and nonprofits don’t typically have staff on hand during that time.

Clark wants to see if local restaurants will step in to close the gap. The Italian-style restaurant Tavolino already provides free meals on Tuesdays, and Clark hopes to get buy-in from others in the months to come.

“It would probably be no more than 10 meals (for those restaurants to provide),” Clark said.

Weekdays can be much busier, according to Clark. First United has a free meal every Monday, and Clark said they regularly see 120 to 130 people each week.

“Christmas, we’ll get up close to 200,” she said.

Not everyone at the meal is experiencing food insecurity, and the point isn’t necessarily to draw such distinctions. Beyond providing a small bit of relief to those struggling to put food on their tables, Clark said the meal at First United is also there to help address social isolation.

“Some people come just because it makes their Monday better,” Clark said. “We have music, and it’s really very fun. There’s no proselytizing. It’s very much the food and the people.”