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Piece-mealing peace meals

Ashland’s community peace meals are now held at 5 p.m. at Railroad Park four days a week — Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

The park borders A Street between Sixth and Eighth streets.

The meals are also held Sundays at Lithia Park, Tuesdays at First United Methodist Church, and at Pioneer Hall Thursdays until the end of the month.

For the last four years, the peace meals, which are run by volunteers, have served roughly 1,400 plates of food each month to hungry people.

The meals were pushed out of Pioneer Hall, except for Thursdays, to make room for organizations that used to meet in the Community Center, which is closed because it has been deemed unsafe.

Ashland Parks and Recreation allowed the meals to operate out of Pioneer Hall free of charge, but now the demand for the facility is too high, Parks Director Michael Black said last month.

Serving the meals in the park requires more work, so volunteers are greatly needed, said volunteer Jason Houk.

Tuesday meals are facilitated by Uncle Foods at First United Methodist Church, 175 N Main St., and Sunday meals are served at the Lithia Park gazebo.

Volunteer Lisa Ostos said for many people, this is the only meal they get each day.

“Without this meal, some people don’t eat at all,” Ostos said. “Many guests suffer from mental illness, and when they don’t get anything to eat, they feel sick and sometimes get a little hostile. Ashland is home for these people, and to have them fall through the cracks and not have people rally around them is not cool. We need our meals to go on no matter what.”

Visitors to the park meals are asked to park on the numbered streets rather than A Street to reduce the impact on the neighborhood.

To keep the food flowing, meal organizers say they need two to four volunteers on Wednesdays, three to four volunteers on Fridays, and one to three volunteers on Saturdays, plus someone who can cook meat dishes.

Volunteers receive meal supplies, supplemental food to cook with and other tools, such as crockpots and serving materials. Sometimes food is dropped off that just needs to be served.

Volunteer jobs include cooking, serving and cleaning up. Guests often help as well, but serving in the park adds more work, Ostos said in an interview last month. She said because everything must be carried in, set up, broken down and carried back, it takes more people.

Donations of any kind are appreciated, especially food and serving materials such as plates, cups and cutlery, Houk said.

The main goal is to find a place to serve the meals inside, Houk said. In the meantime, they need crews of people ready to go, as well as back-up volunteers to fill in any gaps.

Ostos said when summer and wildfire smoke arrive, and when winter and rain arrive, indoor meals are a huge reprieve for volunteers and guests.

“Our volunteers are going to drop off like flies when it becomes uncomfortable outside,” Ostos said.

Houk said volunteers were told by parks staff that organizations with seniority were given priority to use Pioneer Hall and other indoor facilities while the Community Center is closed.

The peace meals have been around for only about four years, so they didn’t rank high on the list.

Houk stressed that while they’re very thankful for use of the parks, moving indoors will become necessary.

The Thursday peace meals have until the end of the month to operate out of Pioneer Hall, which is the biggest meal of the week and begins at 3 p.m. At these meals, other donations such as underwear, socks and toiletries are often spread out on card tables.

He said if any churches or organizations wanted to host the meals, even just one day a week, volunteers would be happy to facilitate and collaborate. A space with a sink is important when providing dozens of people with food every day.

At an Ashland Parks and Recreation Commission meeting last month, it was mentioned that there most likely won’t be enough money in the budget to open the Community Center any time soon.

Houk said he’s confident they’ll find a solution before winter. The group applied for a community development grant from the city, which could help in renting a space and making the meals waste-free. Single-use materials currently are utilized for the meals, but volunteers have a goal of using all reusable materials.

Houk said Southern Oregon Jobs with Justice, the financial funder of the meals, is working to attain a commercial kitchen space in its warehouse. That way the food could be staged and prepared ahead of time, and reusable materials could be washed after.

“We will continue to provide meals as long as there’s a need for it, and I don’t see that going away anytime soon,” Houk said. “There’s a lot that we can’t do, but the meals are something we can do.”

He said with the end to the winter shelter season, many people are back on the streets.

“Folks are tired and still struggling to seek shelter,” Houk said. “We’re trying to provide stability for a portion of the community that is a little wobbly.”

To volunteer, call Houk at 541-841-8341 or see the Facebook page Community Peace Meals.

Contact Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

Caitlin Fowlkes / Ashland Tidings{ } The community peace meal feeds Ashland citizens every day of the week. But it's been moved from Pioneer Hall to the outdoors.