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News / Clark County News

‘Food is always a great connection’: Free Hot Soup Vancouver marks decade of serving meals to those in need

Volunteer group also provides necessities such as sleeping bags, hygiene kits

By Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter
Published: April 16, 2024, 6:08am
5 Photos
Free Hot Soup Vancouver volunteers Jennifer Wyld, from left, Becky Harrington and Ronda Hansen prepare a plate of food for a person at Esther Short Park in downtown Vancouver. The volunteers are part of a yearslong effort to help the hungry.
Free Hot Soup Vancouver volunteers Jennifer Wyld, from left, Becky Harrington and Ronda Hansen prepare a plate of food for a person at Esther Short Park in downtown Vancouver. The volunteers are part of a yearslong effort to help the hungry. (Photos by Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

About 10 years ago, a group of Clark County residents gathered together to feed the hungry. Free Hot Soup Vancouver volunteers have stuck with it since, serving free food to the community every week for a decade.

“We’ve never missed a service,” said Shelly Gaylor, a Free Hot Soup Vancouver organizer. “Rain, snow, ice storms, COVID — we make it out regardless of the conditions.”

Free Hot Soup is a leaderless group of volunteers who gather donations of food that would otherwise go to waste and use it to prepare meals for people living outside or in homeless shelters — or anyone who is hungry.

The group receives support from the Clark County Food Bank and businesses including Panera Bread, Crumbl Cookies and Krispy Kreme.

ON THE WEB

To learn more about Free Hot Soup Vancouver, visit www.facebook.com/groups/FHSVancouver

Every Wednesday and Saturday, volunteers meet at Esther Short Park in downtown Vancouver and then make their way over to the homeless encampment near Share House. They also donate food to the city of Vancouver’s Safe Stay shelter at 415 West.

Despite the name, the group doesn’t just serve soup but also foods such as pasta, salad, bread, dessert and even such necessities as sleeping bags and hygiene kits.

A lot has changed for the group over the past 10 years — new volunteers and locations — but the need for what it offers has only increased. When the group first started there were approximately 700 homeless people in Clark County. That number has grown to 1,300, according to Council for the Homeless data. The volunteers serve about 100 people per day.

“If there’s people to feed, we’re going to feed them,” Gaylor said.

Consistent

In 2013, a handful of volunteers informally met once a week to pass out food outside an Anytime Fitness in Vancouver. The group spun off from a grassroots Portland effort and is coordinated through a members-only Facebook page.

Some of the gym members would leave shoes they no longer needed for the volunteers to distribute to those in need.

The group has hit a couple road bumps along the way. In 2015, Clark County Public Health raised questions about food handling and safety. Now, the group requires anyone who prepares meals to have a food handler permit, Gaylor said.

The group also received some opposition from neighbors who complained free meals attracted more homeless people to the park, who left behind trash.

“We went to (the park) because that’s where the people were. We came to them and just set up the table,” Gaylor said. “But I think people are more accepting now.”

A few years ago, someone called the police on the volunteers and when two officers arrived and found out what the volunteers were doing, they praised them for their work.

“They said, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing,’ and then 15 minutes later they came back with a man in the back of the car, and they dropped him off so the man could have a meal,” Gaylor said.

She said that was a moment she knew the work was accepted and important.

Even neighbors have become some of Free Hot Soup Vancouver’s biggest supporters.

Karen Morrison would watch volunteers from Free Hot Soup gather and pass out food from her balcony across the street. Morrison told her friend Jennifer Wyld about it and the two joined the effort in 2016. Both Morrison and Wyld like Free Hot Soup’s mission to alleviate food insecurity and food waste.

“It makes my heart feel good to know that I help — even in a small way of bringing food. Food is always a great connection, and I’m grateful to be part of it,” Morrison said.

Wyld said one of the main reasons she has stayed with the group this long is because of the people. She described her fellow volunteers as big-hearted and dedicated.

“I’ve seen people give away like the jacket they were wearing. … There was a man who no longer volunteers, but I’ve seen him twice give the shoes off his feet to somebody who didn’t have shoes and do the rest of our service barefoot,” Wyld said. “The magic just happens that twice a week somebody agrees to sign up and help the community.”

Sense of community

On a Wednesday in late March, Monica Griffin inches her way through the assembly-line style food line and loads her plate with various types of food.

Griffin uses the resource to help offset the cost of dinner one night a week for her and her son. She’s been using the service for about a year and a half.

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“It’s amazing,” Griffin said. “Having this here is a huge sense of relief. I can come down here with my son and it’s one less dinner I have to make myself and it’s healthy and tastes delicious and it’s consistent.”

Gaylor said the group will continue serving meals, but the long-term hope is the resource will no longer be needed because no one lacks food.

“Until then, people always know where they can get a hot meal,” she said.

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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