Community lunch spurs appetites, friendships

May 3, 2011

By Laura Geggel

The buffet lunch boasted clam-and-salmon chowder, fresh fruit smoothies and a taco bar, but it wasn’t a ritzy restaurant — it was a delicious community gathering, served for free at the Issaquah Community Hall every Thursday.

Ray Anderson (right), a Henderson House resident, receives a bowl of mixed vegetables and a taco from volunteers Marsha Whitfield (left) and Jean Olsen. By Greg Farrar

The free lunch was the brainchild of Marilyn Ottinger. She regularly volunteered at the Issaquah Food and Clothing Bank and noticed how sometimes the lines moved slowly, with people waiting outside before they could collect food, clothes and other household comforts.

In 2009, she and her friends began serving lunch out of the back of their cars, setting up tables near the queue.

“We started to get to know the folks,” Ottinger said, which made her want to reach out even more.

Their portable lunch stop hit a snag in summer 2009, when temperatures topped 100 degrees. Ottinger worked with Issaquah City Councilman Fred Butler to get a permanent indoor — and cooler — space. He helped them land the Issaquah Community Hall, the meeting room in the East Sunset Way fire station.

“It was just something that tugs at your heartstrings to see a group of volunteers identifying a need and trying to make things better for the less fortunate,” Butler said. “The time that I saw it, there were children and their parents and warm food and everything.”

People from all walks of life come to the community lunch: those in need of financial help, seniors from the Issaquah Valley Senior Center looking for a hot meal and any average joe who wants lunch and a good conversation.

About 25 people come to each meal and, after catching up with their friends, bus their own tables.

“I totally look forward to this lunch because it’s better than terrific,” Issaquah resident Doug Browning said. “It’s the best lunch in town, and the coffee is phenomenal.”

Volunteer Wes Howard-Brook brews the coffee himself, and like any good barista, he’s quick to fill mugs in need of a caffeine splash.

“It’s one of the highlights of my week,” Howard-Brook said. “Part of the lunch for me is getting to know people I see downtown.”

More people tend to come toward the end of the month, when they have fewer resources, Ottinger said.

Catholic Community Services provides dinners from 5:30-6 p.m., Monday through Friday at the hall. In October, Ottinger’s group began serving dinner on the weekends, in addition to its Thursday lunch, “so there is a free hot meal in Issaquah seven days a week,” Ottinger said.

Groups or people interested in volunteering or hosting one of the meals should email her at mmottinger@gmail.com, Ottinger said.

She typically gets donations from the food bank, Panera Bread and, of course, her and her friends’ kitchens.

“There’s a lot of people that this helps because the economy’s so bad,” Mark Anderson, a 1984 Issaquah High School graduate said. “It helps with my budget and it provides food I normally wouldn’t eat.”

Each week, volunteers come up with a new theme for the buffet table. The fresh fruit smoothies and homemade chowders are a staple, but the main course changes, from vegetable stir fry to burritos to tacos.

“We ask the people, ‘If you could have anything to eat, what would it be?’” Ottinger said.

Most people like soup, a hot comfort food, she added.

She encouraged people to come eat or volunteer at the free meals.

“When we give without counting the cost, we receive far more than we offer,” she said.

If you go

Enjoy a free lunch from noon to 1 p.m. every Thursday, from 5-6:30 p.m. every Saturday and from 4-5:30 p.m. every Sunday at the Issaquah Community Hall, 190 E. Sunset Way.

Laura Geggel: 392-6434, ext. 241, or lgeggel@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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