The activity begins around 10:30 a.m. on any given Thursday.
Volunteers wait inside St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church as a car pulls around back. Then, the work begins.
Jane Danz dutifully delivers goods like she does every week around this time, and Ron and Sharon Rovansek unload the numerous bags of breads, fresh produce, and other odds and ends. This week’s interesting highlight: A few containers of sushi.
With the help of a few others, the Rovanseks sort through the treasure, deciding what must be used today and what can be frozen for the future.
Then, Ron Rovansek, an organizer for the church’s weekly Community Cafe, decides what other ingredients the group might need for that evening’s meal.
“It’s some combination of what we want to cook, what people like and what our donations bring us,” he said.
And don’t let the title soup kitchen fool you; there is more than just soup being prepared each week.
On the menu this particular Thursday was pot roast, barbecue chicken, mashed potatoes and roasted vegetables. The group always provides a choice of two soups, bread, coffee and desserts.
“At some point we decided that we’re doing well with soup, but we could do more. We wanted more of a hearty meal,” Rovansek said. “I was trying to make sure we had kids coming in. … So, we started serving hot dishes.”
Food donations of all kinds come in from Weis, Trader Joe’s, Irvings and Honey Baked Ham, and dedicated volunteers pick it up from the local stores and bring it to the church to be sorted.
Danz has transported bags of food that has surpassed its sell-by date from Trader Joe’s every Thursday and Saturday for the past two years, and volunteer Darlene Nordoff has been doing the same with Weis since the Community Cafe started almost five years ago.
“It’s not a big deal once, but trying to do it for four years and it’s a big deal,” Rovansek said, to which Nordoff quipped, “Just a few things,” as she whisked down the church hallway after a drop off.
Danz said she finds it exciting to be able to take something that was heading for the trash and turn it into a meal for someone else.
“I think that it’s staggering to imagine if you just look around (at the donations), and that’s just two of the grocery stores. … It’s overwhelming to think that there’s that much waste,” she said, adding that “we couldn’t do this without their donations. ... We really appreciate everything that they give us.”
And because the Community Cafe has the ability to use perishable food before it spoils, there are a lot of donations available.
“There doesn’t seem to be any shortage of food,” Rovansek said. “It’s a shortage of help to collect it.”
There are many jobs for the many volunteers. A rotating group of seven teams takes care of preparing the meals each week, and others join in throughout the week with picking up and sorting through food and cleaning up after each meal. There are about 70 to 80 regular volunteers with some sporadic volunteers from different organizations, such as the Delta program at State College Area High School and a few Penn State fraternities and sororities.
Rovansek, who works from home as a civil engineer, has been volunteering at the soup kitchen since its inception and took over organizational responsibilities a few years ago.
“I’m not certain who is or isn’t involved in the church. … A quarter of our volunteers or more are not from Saint Andrews, which is great,” he said. “It’s sort of a way of bringing people from all over together to do some good.”
“A soup kitchen is pretty easy to get people excited about,” Rovansek added, but he’s always looking for more help.
The Community Cafe, founded in May 2009 by church members Madeline Johnson and Allison Boston, is open every Thursday from 5 to 6:45 p.m., no matter the weather.
Rovansek joked that he has volunteers who live close by who are ready to come in the case of a blizzard, but “I can’t even remember questionable weather on a Thursday for four or five years.”
Some volunteers occasionally trickle in from the street, and many of them aren’t affiliated with the church at all.
Evelyn London is one of those new faces.
London, who was volunteering for the second time on a Thursday in late September, had heard about the soup kitchen and thought about volunteering some time ago. A few weeks ago, she was walking by the church when she decided to stop in and ask if help was needed. She was welcomed with open arms and given a tour.
“I met several people who just want to do something to give back,” said London, who retired with her husband to the State College area. “I was amazed by it my very first time at the number and mix of folks who came through.”
Early birds start gathering by 4:30 p.m. as the smell of the meal to come wafts from the kitchen, and when opening time rolls around, a line of a people from many walks of life has amassed. College-age students mix with retired seniors. Some members of the church mill in. A few young children run around. Members of a young adult group affiliated with the church occasionally drop by for dinner and to meet afterward.
The variety of visitors may be surprising for a soup kitchen, but Rovansek said that the goal is not only to provide food to those in need, but also to create a place for all in the community to gather.
“It’s a friendly place, and someone’s likely to say ‘hi’ to you,” he said. “These are long tables where you’re unlikely to sit by yourself. … That’s a big part that we’re offering.”
“Some of the regular people who come in … they don’t have a lot of opportunities to sit down and have dinner with people who are expecting them to come and know their name, so that’s a big part of it as much as the food,” he said. “I don’t know how many people would starve every Thursday if they didn’t have dinner here, but I think there are a lot of people who would be lonely. That’s the ‘community’ in Community Café.”
Rovansek said that there’s a homeless population in State College that the soup kitchen tries to reach out to, but “I don’t ask you if you’re homeless or not. And there’s a big percentage who I don’t know who they are.”
While the meal is free for anyone who walks in the door, there is a donation jar that funds the operation beyond the food donations, and Rovansek encourages people to come out for a meal and enjoy the company, even if they don’t feel like they are in “need” of a meal.
“Eat dinner, put some money in the jar, and that’s how it’s supported,” he said.
Michael Weaver attends the soup kitchen regularly with a group of residents who live with him downtown at Addison Court.
“I like the environment, I like the people, I like the food and I like the company,” he said.
While the church kitchen isn’t large — it has a stove, a broiler, two refrigerators, an industrial dishwasher and an island for counter space — the soup kitchen serves about 120 meals each week.
“At some people we’ll run out of space,” Rovansek said. “We haven’t run into that problem yet, but we’ll worry about that when it happens.”
Follow Heather Hottle on Twitter @hmhottle.