Someone walking into the Holts Summit Civic Center on a Tuesday or Thursday afternoon will first smell the savory aromas of roast beef, ribs, chicken or another main entrée dish wafting out of the kitchen.
The chatter and laughter of six to seven ladies busy at work in that room follows, accompanied by the chopping of knives into vegetables and fruits against a cutting board, utensils mixing side dishes and water filling pots to boil on the stove. More voices are heard in the dining area as men and women arrange silverware, set out plates and position additional food on tables.
By 5 p.m., a spread of steaming food covers multiple tables and awaits guests, who begin to show up at the door and fill up the dining room with their own chatter and laughter as they enjoy the free community meal. For many it has become a tradition of fellowship, while for others it is a tradition of stopping continued hunger. Their full bellies, smiles and signs of gratitude make serving free community meals twice a week year-round a tradition of service for the organizers and the volunteers at the Holts Summit Soup Kitchen.
“We get a lot of people that look forward to coming up here and sitting and visiting with people here,” said Mary Steck, co-coordinator for the Holts Summit Soup Kitchen. “Our volunteers are the same way.”
“It is a nourishment for the soul to get together with people and enjoy a meal and friendship,” added co-coordinator Darrell Brauner.
Celebrating nearly a decade of service to Mid-Missourians, the Holts Summit Soup Kitchen started as a “spin-off” of the Fulton Soup Kitchen by one of its longtime volunteers, Mary said.
“Helen Manson was working at the Fulton Soup Kitchen and decided Holts Summit had a need, too,” she said. “She worked with the (Holts Summit) Lions Club initially to get it started.”
Like the Fulton Soup Kitchen, the goal for the Holts Summit Soup Kitchen is to offer a hot, free meal that helps those who are in need of food. Even though the meal is open to everyone who would like to enjoy a variety of home-cooked dinners, the program’s organizers find that the majority of those in attendance are below the poverty line.
“We have to turn in numbers to the Food Bank (of Central and Northeast Missouri) because we do get items from there. We turn in the counts for adults and the kids, and the percentage is above and below the poverty line,” Mary said. “However, we have found about 80 to 90 percent of people we serve are below that level. … It is a small community, so you also know most of the people, too.”
Initially about 11 to 30 people were served with the volunteers offering one community meal a week. Within about a year, they added a second night and eventually needed a new home to regularly serve their customers and not conflict with the Lions’ many events and programs.
“The city offered us this building (the Holts Summit Civic Center) for $1 a year, basically giving it to us for free,” Mary said. “We are very lucky to have this place.”
By 2 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday, Mary, Darrell and a core group of six to eight volunteers come to their facility to begin the prep work for the community meal. Mary, who is charge of the cooking, determines what will be served depending on what is in the freezer.
“We get day-old food (meat, salad, fruits and vegetables) from Aldi, so we have a bunch of chicken thighs right now,” she said, describing one meal the soup kitchen served in early October. “We also will have potato salad, make green beans, serve rolls and offer a veggie tray.”
Mary said often when they serve something like roast beef, a specialty soup such as Mary’s taco soup or chili, they will have a chicken alternative for those who do not want beef. That alternative is usually Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken, who donates their end of the day fried chicken twice a week to the soup kitchen.
“We do this for everyone but especially for the kids, and they love it,” Darrell said.
Serving up 50 to 70 dinners on average at each community meal, the Holts Summit Soup Kitchen also combines about 15 to 20 extra meals of Lee’s fried chicken and potato wedges or another side to give to patrons before they leave. In addition, other items such as candy bars, canned goods and treats are also available from time to time.
“We know there are some people that may not have any food to eat between these meals. That is why we try to provide them with something to take home,” Darrell said, noting each of the “extra” dinners of chicken is enough for a couple of meals or servings.
The soup kitchen staff also does about 20 takeout orders for special circumstances or after the community meal is complete.
“To take one home, we do that at the end. We want to make sure we have enough food here to serve the people that are coming and the special orders,” Mary said.
Darrell said one older lady will come in and take two meals back to her elderly husband who cannot leave the home.
“Another gentleman, who is the kind of person who would give you the shirt of his back and is very generous, has opened up his home to different people and even fixed (a neighbor’s) vehicle,” Darrell said. “We make sure we send him home with extra food items as he may not get what he needs for himself.”
The Holts Summit Soup Kitchen also regularly receives bread weekly from Hy-Vee, day-old desserts from Gerbes Supermarket, vegetables from the community garden in Holts Summit and monthly items from the Food Bank.
“They said they had riblets, thinking it was like a McDonald’s McRib. We went to the Food Bank and they were racks of ribs, and oh my were they good,” Darrell said. “They were so popular. The second time it hit our menu, the numbers doubled.”
Mary said many individuals will also come in and drop off a variety of food and monetary donations, which allows them to purchase additional items to create popular dishes and desserts, such as spaghetti, Chuckwagon (or cowboy) beans, cheesy potato casserole, pan burritos (a recipe from regular volunteers the Marine Corps League Samuel F. Gearhart Detachment Auxiliary) or sweet macaroni salad (courtesy of a former Holts Summit city administrator’s wife).
Outside of the core group of about six to eight volunteers, many other community members come up to assist in the preparation, cooking, cleaning and serving of the Holts Summit Soup Kitchen’s community meals. In fact, the Holts Summit Lions Club frequently volunteers their time and helps with special needs of the group, the Marine Corps League Auxiliary serve every six weeks, the Jefferson City Area Board of Realtors also volunteer a handful of times throughout the year and Girl Scouts troops also come in to help, especially during the holidays.
“In fact, Central Bank will come to help on Election Day this year, too,” Mary said, noting that all ages are welcome with some volunteers as young as 6 or 7 years old to one longtime volunteer who is 92. “We use real plates, silverware and glasses, so we always need dishwashers. … We take anybody that wants to come help present a meal or help put the meal together or serve or clean. We have jobs for them from cutting vegetables to taking trash out and sweeping at the end of the evening.”
Many of these same groups have also donated to upgrade the Holts Summit Soup Kitchen’s workspace, including an island, cabinets, and lighting from Central Bank, renovation work from Mary’s husband and other volunteers, and additional sinks, microwaves and appliances from the Holts Summit Betterment Association.
The HSBA also will donate two baked and two smoked turkeys for the Thanksgiving community meal and ham for the Christmas meal at the soup kitchen, with each holiday meal held the Thursday before the scheduled holiday. This year’s Thanksgiving feast is at 5 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 15. The Christmas meal will be at 5 p.m. Dec. 20, before the center is closed from Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Outside the featured stars of the Thanksgiving turkey or Christmas ham, both meals include a slew of side dishes, pies and desserts, enough to feed lots of families and individuals who may have nowhere to go for the holidays.
“Many people do have their families to eat with during the holidays, but a lot of people don’t have family that they can go see so they can go here and enjoy that same fellowship with us,” Darrell said.
Visitors from as close as Holts Summit and as far as Fulton, New Bloomfield and Jefferson City share that fellowship at each community meal.
Marilyn Miller-Smith and her daughter Angela Miller have lived in Jefferson City for about 15 years and started attending the Holts Summit Soup Kitchen regularly in March. Marilyn lives on disability and her daughter works part time for her at their home.
“Before food stamps and still after, it is kind of tough to make ends meet financially and still get food. We live on a little over $1,000. It doesn’t stretch to help with utilities, medications, loans. … Just because you get food stamps doesn’t mean that you are poverty level, and there are a lot of places that offer food distribution to help you at home,” she said, noting First Baptist Church, the Samaritan Center and Salvation Army all do this, with the last also offering fresh hot meals as well. “That is personally why we come here to balance our diet better with what we also get from other agencies. … Places like this help you stretch meals as well, getting you through the weekends and the holidays.”
Marilyn enjoys the meals served at the Holts Summit Soup Kitchen and also tries to give back to the program to help others. At one meal in early October, Marilyn and Angela brought in some treats they received in hopes the volunteers may give them to another community meal guest who may want to take them home.
“If we have food that we don’t use, we’ll donate it and share it so someone else can have it,” she said. “If we are blessed, we try to bless others.”
She also enjoys the fellowship of the community meal, has made friends with fellow diners and volunteers, and shares other programs like the soup kitchen or places where individuals or families in need can get assistance financially and for life’s necessities.
“A lot of people are prideful. If you are a newcomer, I ask, ‘Do you need extra help?’ I try to share those places in Holts Summit and Jefferson City that can help that person,” she said. “Sometimes it is about stepping up and saying, ‘I need help.’ I didn’t want to reach out at first because I was working and raising two babies. But you have to pray about it and it is simply about wisdom; don’t starve yourself to death.”
Whether it is a sweet family like Marilyn and Angela, older widowed men or women, or individuals simply wanting to get a hot meal and companionship, everyone at the Holts Summit Soup Kitchen walks away with a full belly, food to take home and a reason to return.
“Some of them have special needs and others are just sweet people that need someone to talk to. …We do have a great set of people that appreciate it. You really feel like you are doing somebody some good.”
Make sure to see the Holts Summit Soup Kitchen volunteers and organizers in the Holts Summit Christmas Parade at 2 p.m. Dec. 8. For more information, to donate or to volunteer, call 573-301-8181, email email@example.com or visit facebook.com/pg/holtssummitsoupkitchen.