With winter right around the corner, a Bellingham organization is doing its part to feed members of the community with hot meals and create a welcoming environment for anyone who needs it.
The Maple Alley Inn hot meal program, founded in 1987, provides for a diverse community of low-income families and people experiencing houselessness, as well as veterans, seniors and individuals in recovery.
“The idea behind our program is to provide healthy meals for folks that don’t have access to healthy food, or for financial reasons can’t access those foods,” Maple Alley Inn Coordinator Anne Poulson said. “We are really conscientious about our ingredients; everything is cooked from scratch, and we have an on-site organic garden where we grow a lot of the vegetables we use.”
The organization grows its ingredients at Faith Lutheran Church, and its garden is home to many fruits and vegetables, including spaghetti squash, tomatoes, bok choy, kale and more. Maple Alley Inn usually processes up to 80 pounds of tomatoes alone in one week for their meals, Poulter said.
COVID-19 has caused indoor dining to be limited to a to-go, as well as delivery service to many local housing programs and apartment complexes. The to-go program is available on Wednesdays from noon to 1 p.m. at Faith Lutheran Church, where anyone can come and get a serving.
The program hopes to be able to offer indoor dining again by December at the latest.
“I’ve had this job for 12 years, so in that time I’ve gotten to know a lot of the people that we serve,” Poulter said. “During COVID-19, I missed a lot of those connections. People are excited to have [indoor dining] back and it's been really nice for our volunteers and myself to actually see these people who we care about so much.”
Food insecurity is a large concern in many cities, and the City of Bellingham website estimates that at least 742 people in Whatcom County are houseless, and one in four local working families can’t afford their basic needs.
“Food insecurity affects every part of a person's life,” said Erin Vonnahme, an administrative specialist at the Bellingham Food Bank. “It's a baseline need that we must meet before we can tackle other demands, whether individually or socially.”
With food being the fuel for daily life, it is imperative to have access to nutritious meals. Additionally, with the disproportionate effect hunger has on African-American and Latino communities, it is important to get involved in order to support these marginalized communities.
“‘Food justice’ isn't a tidy monolith,” Vonnahme said. “It's a complex ecosystem requiring an intersectional approach. You can pick a part of this work that is most meaningful to you ⎯ like universal school lunches or the racist policies that grow food deserts ⎯ as you begin… to advocate and organize.”
The program has had incredibly positive effects on community members, and many attendees have become regulars for multiple years.
“I save a lot of money and time,” said Dan, who has attended and volunteered at the program for multiple years. “I also like volunteering a lot and just helping out. You should have seen the tomatoes last year. They were huge!”
The city has many different plans they are working on to combat homelessness and food insecurity, but in the meantime, the Maple Alley Inn offers a hospitable service that aims to bring people from the community together. The program welcomes people from all backgrounds and can be a place for a hot meal or just a new friend.
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