On the first Monday in November, 34 years ago, Loaves and Fishes started at Holy Name Church in East Nashville to serve the city's homeless and hungry. For that first meal they served peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
"They wanted people to be able to come inside," said Wendy Overlock, Catholic Charities' program coordinator for Loaves and Fishes. "And immediately the space in the church was too little."
Over more than three decades, Loaves and Fishes has grown in the space in which it welcomes the hungry, in the number of meals it serves each week, in the services it offers.
Much of that growth has been made possible by the donation of time, talent and treasure from the community. And once again, Loaves and Fishes is asking for financial support for its outreach to those in need.
Included with this issue of the Tennessee Register, readers will find a Loaves and Fishes donation envelope that they can use to send a donation to the program.
A few years after Loaves and Fishes was launched, organizers were able to move it into the more spacious building at 508 Main St. behind Holy Name, which is its current home. Acquired from a previous business, Loaves and Fishes retrofitted the building with an industrial kitchen. The program was able to seat 120 guests at a time for hot lunches every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday.
Volunteers serve as the backbone of the Loaves and Fishes program, helping to prepare and serve meals for the homeless and hungry. They come as part of organized groups from schools, churches and community organizations and as individuals. Photo by John Partipilo
That model has changed very little over the years. "If you read the history, it is so consistent," said Overlook. "Once they went to three days a week, as far as I can tell, they've always been open those three days. I can't find anybody who's been here that knows about a day that it was closed."
Another consistency is the steady flow of volunteers, who are the true backbone of Loaves and Fishes. The volunteer force is extensive and far-reaching. Most show up in already organized groups, like students from Metro, Catholic and other private schools; parishioners from churches of various denominations; and numerous community associations. "We've consistently had awesome volunteers who come and prep food and serve it," Overlock said.
Faithful and dependable volunteers require a consistent team of volunteer coordinators too, who are themselves giving of their time and gifts without pay. One current coordinator, Zita Patterson of Holy Rosary Church, has been organizing volunteers for 30 of Loaves and Fishes' 34 years. Otto Werrbach, volunteer coordinator for St. Joseph Church in Madison, is 92 and has been assisting the program since it got underway. Anisse Tisdale, a Holy Name parishioner, has been helping in a coordinator capacity since day one.
Filling the chairs and tables has never been a problem, and it occurs, primarily through word of mouth. "We have a Loaves and Fishes sign here, but it's up above the building," said Overlock. "So it's not like you're going to drive down the street and see it. But somehow the word gets out that this is a safe place to get a good meal. And the only way that happens is because of our guests, who pass along the word that this is a good place to come and eat."
The guests are both homeless and housed, of all ages. They are a mix of backgrounds, "a kind of microcosm of Nashville," according to Overlock.
One wonderful by-product of the program is that the guests take care of each other. "When a new person comes in, they want to connect them to what they need, and where they know this person can go get it," Overlock said.
Sometimes that's just making an introduction to one of the several outreach workers from social service agencies who attend the food events to share information about their available resources. Those resources include food stamps, veteran, health and mental health services, sources for clothing and food, and support for employment and housing.
All that great stuff has been happening for many years three days a week. However, there have recently been a few additions to the Loaves and Fishes "menu." On Martin Luther King Day of this year, the program initiated a hot breakfast, in addition to the established hot lunch. It quickly became clear that the MLK breakfast would become an annual event. "It was a smashing success," laughed Overlock.
Another add-on is that one of Overlock's Catholic Charities co-workers, Scott Gubala, is now coming on Saturdays to cut guests' hair in a make-shift "barber shop." His available time slots have been filling up so fast that another hair cutter has expressed interest in setting up a second barber's station.
The last new offering is that there'll be a special Christmas meal served on Christmas Day, even if the holiday doesn't fall on a Monday, Wednesday or Saturday. "It's a traditional meal with turkey and dressing and all that stuff, including pumpkin pie and whipped cream," said Overlock.
Although the program benefits from an unusually high level of volunteer work contributions, Loaves and Fishes still depends on cash for food, supplies and utilities. Fortunately, some of its funding comes through United Way and other grants. "But still, more than half of our income is from individuals who send in money," explained Overlock. "Many volunteer groups send in money to cover the food that the program orders in bulk, to save money, from Second Harvest or other food suppliers. But there are other necessary things, like toilet paper in the bathrooms and gas to keep the ovens running. Donated money helps to cover those things as well."
Readers can use the envelope included in this edition of the Register to send in a donation.
For more information about the program, to volunteer or to contribute food or funds, call 615-256-7256 or email LoavesandFishes@cctenn.org.