Stan and Vicky Budinas prepare bags of snacks to be handed out with a free, Tuesday night community dinner at the Episcopal Church of the Covenant earlier this week.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the Episcopal Church of the Covenant, continued their Tuesday night dinners.

Usually the free-to-the-community dinners took place inside the church, where people could enjoy one another’s company in addition to a hot meal, but social distancing and other hygiene concerns didn’t allow for that.

So they made changes and turned the dinner into a to-go event where volunteers packaged meals to be handed out to those in need.

Need has increased, the church has found, as many people have lost their jobs due to the pandemic and the crowds lining up to receive the meals has grown.

According to volunteer Melinda Bozarth, the church has fed 1,977 people since the meals began earlier this year. On average for the first five months, Bozarth said, about 350 people were served each month.

“All the sudden, things picked up and now we’re averaging (more than) 100 per week,” she said. “So we’re real pleased, obviously. We see familiar faces each week that are coming back to us and that’s good.”

Bozarth said she would like to see the initiative move to every night of the week, but said the church would need help to do that — maybe from other churches.

According to Mother Doreen Rice, who pastors the church, people are often lined up for half an hour prior to the meal’s start.

The meals start at 5:30 p.m. and volunteers have often run out of food by 6 p.m.

When they started back in February, Rice said, they served about 30 people a night. Now, they often serve more than 110 people a night.

Rice said she felt the pandemic was directly responsible for the increase in attendance.

“I think people losing their jobs — as soon as that started to happen, we just saw a huge influx of people,” she said. “I had a woman with a young daughter who was coming all spring, and she said, ‘I just want you to know, this has made all the difference in the world, because my husband moved to Virginia to take a new job.’”

He moved at the start of the pandemic, she said, and was almost immediately laid off, Rice said. He received no unemployment, because he had just started the job.

“She said that the food from us kept them going,” Rice said.

People from a wide variety of demographics attend the dinners.

“We see a lot of moms with young kids,” she said. “We have one dinner guest that picks up meals for 20 people. He’s got 20 people in the building where he lives and he brings food to them. We see elderly folks for sure who are probably on a fixed income and they come every week and get a meal.”

People can take their food home or if they would like to eat at the church — or if they don’t have a home to return to — there is a spot they can sit between the church buildings and have their meals.

The church needs volunteers to help make, package and distributed the food, but isn’t actively seeking donations at this time, though Rice said they could use donations of fruit cups to hand out during the dinners.

“We would just love a few more hands, if anybody would be interested,” Rice said.

She praised the volunteers and donors the church already has.

“It was all driven by a group of lay people in the church,” Rice said. “”They just said, ‘we feel strongly about doing this, there’s a need in Junction City, and we want to do a dinner.’”

Breaking Bread of JC still serves Friday night dinners at the 12th Street Community Center at 1002 W. 12th St. and the Episcopal Church of the Covenant at 314 N. Adams St. will continue to serve meals starting at 5:30 p.m. every Tuesday night.

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