The smell of waffles, syrup and sausages wafted from Share House in downtown Vancouver on Tuesday morning as a line of people — many of them experiencing homelessness — formed outside.
Inside, Share volunteers were quickly preparing coffee, eggs, fresh fruit and other breakfast staples.
When the doors opened at 8:30 a.m., those lined up were greeted by a cheerful volunteer, and within minutes, everyone had been served a plate of food. Many ate together at the tables inside, while some ate on the steps outside.
By 9 a.m., nearly 100 people had enjoyed a hot, nutritious meal, and volunteers were already busy preparing lunch and dinner.
On June 1, Share began offering in-person dining for its Hot Meals program at its location at 1115 W. 13th St. after a nearly two-and-a-half-year hiatus spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Share never stopped serving meals, however. At the beginning of the pandemic, the program pivoted from in-person dining to to-go meals. Now, Share is back to serving in-person meals for breakfast between 8:30 and 9 a.m. and dinner between 5 and 5:30 p.m. weekdays, with to-go options available for lunch and weekends.
“People are really glad to be back,” said Share’s Hunger and Nutrition Programs Manager Becci Read-Ryan. “Our volunteers work really hard to prepare amazing food.”
The Hot Meals program is a no-barrier program, meaning anyone can stop by for a meal.
“We don’t require any paperwork or check-in to access food,” Read-Ryan said.
Meals are always made from scratch and include a protein, a carbohydrate, fruits, vegetables and the occasional dessert. To-go options often include a sandwich, granola bars and other donated food.
Some 80 percent of the food used for the program is donated to Share by community partners and individuals, according to Read-Ryan.
“We partner with grocery stores that donate, and then Clark County Food Bank is our biggest partner,” she said. “We’re able to order through them every week for our pantry staples, and then we purchase whatever fill-in food we need.”
Before the pandemic, Share served roughly 3,000 meals a month. Between May and December 2020, the program served about 9,000 meals a month. Now, it serves roughly 7,000 to 8,000 meals a month.
The program also provides meals for Share’s Women’s Housing and Transition shelter.
“Need for food assistance in our community remains high,” Share spokeswoman Jessica Lightheart said. “With rising food prices, we don’t expect the need to come down anytime soon.”
As the need soared throughout the pandemic, the number of Share volunteers plummeted.
“We are still looking to increase our volunteer base to help prepare and serve meals or to clean up in the kitchen and dining room before or after meals,” Lightheart said. “It takes a lot of people to put this on.”
Nonetheless, volunteers Tuesday worked hard to ensure that everyone received a meal.
In the kitchen, husband and wife Phil and Susan Harding were busy serving up eggs, waffles and sausages. The retired couple moved to Vancouver two months ago, and they enjoy volunteering.
“Share says all the time that they couldn’t do it without volunteers,” Phil Harding said. “If we can help out, we’re happy to be here.”
“We like to come in and do some prep work before we start serving,” Susan Harding added. “This program is definitely needed.”
Share employees help keep the program running, too. Serving up fresh fruit and coffee Tuesday was Jeremiah Melendrez, assistant food coordinator with Share.
“It feels kind of weird to go back to our roots, because we’ve been doing things differently for almost three years,” he said. “We’re still trying to get back into the swing of things, but it’s been going well overall.”
The Hot Meals program serves more than just meals. During dinner, Share’s outreach staff visit to check in with people and help connect them with services.
“It’s a great opportunity for them to have some face time with folks in a relaxed setting,” Read-Ryan said.