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Meal still free, but rent not so much

Sponsors of a weekly free meal for hungry people have volunteered to start paying a rental fee for the first time as its longtime host copes with a dwindling revenue stream.

Peace House, an Ashland nonprofit group, has hosted “Uncle Foods Diner” for Ashland’s poor and homeless since 1993 at First United Methodist Church at 175 North Main St.

Roughly 100 people show up at Uncle Foods every Tuesday night for a meal, and all parties want that to continue. But now, as with congregations across the country, the church is facing the reality that as church elders and contributors age out, there are fewer younger people inclined to join churches to take their place, forcing the Ashland church to take a hard look at its finances.

Millennials — especially the youngest millennials, are far less religious than their elders, according to a 2015 Pew Research Poll. For example, only 27 percent of millennials say they attend religious services on a weekly basis, compared with 51 percent of adults in their grandparents generation.

“Young families aren’t raising their families in the church, it’s happening everywhere,” says church member and meal volunteer Leigh Madsen, who also leads the Ashland Community Resource Center. “We just aren’t attracting people the way we used to.”

When Peace House learned the church was dipping into its savings to offer the building at no charge for Uncle Foods, it asked for a fair price to rent the church hall on Tuesdays.

“They never threatened to end the program and they didn’t insist on a particular amount. We asked,” says Peace House Program Manager Elizabeth Hallett. “They’ve been so generous. We’ve never had a line item for renting the hall.”

The amount being discussed is roughly $750 per month, still cheaper than the standard rate.

It comes about as a result of established families no longer contributing at the same levels as elders die or move into retirement and can no longer afford the same level of giving.

“It’s like a car. You drive it and never think about the gas,” says Pastor Richenda Fairhurst. “But we have to think about that. We cannot let the car run out of gas,

“Uncle Foods is so cool. I’m in awe and it blows me away. But it takes a whole community. It’s sad that it can’t just be free.”

Pastor Fairhurst said she and her board looked at the numbers and saw they were contributing roughly $30,000 per year.

“Someone had to look at how we resource this,” says Fairhurst. “Churches can’t stop poverty and churches can’t feed everybody.”

She said, however, they never questioned continuing, only deciding to begin an inquiry into how to keep the program running.

Uncle Foods coordinator and Chef Maren Faye says she believes Peace House and the rest of the crew helping with Uncle Foods have to step up. “They (the church) take the brunt of everything. They more than deserve that amount ($750.00 a month).”

The program has about 30 volunteers and feeds 100 people during the winter and up to 150 in the summer time. Many of the people who eat the meals are homeless or hoping to avoid homelessness by supplementing their food with the free meals.

Many of the diners are also volunteers at the meals.

Uncle Foods not only provides the meal on Tuesdays but enlists help from La Clinica which brings medical care and foot care and the church has storage areas for clothing and other supplies for those in need.

“We’re trying to figure out what it costs and get it covered. It’s happening in lots of congregations, the income isn’t what it used to be,” says Madsen as he folds up tables and helps clean up after a particularly robust meal. “Everyone deserves to eat.”

Empty Bowls, an annual fundraising dinner featuring a modest meal of bread and soup served in bowls made by local potters with proceeds supporting Uncle Foods Diner, is set for April 27 this year. Information about the event will be posted at peacehouse.net as plans are finalized, or call the Peace House office at 541-482-9625.

— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at julieanneakins@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.