Close to 20 years ago, volunteers began preparing a dinner for anyone seeking food and fellowship.
“It started with a person seeing the need for our community. I remember the first week, we served two people, then the next week five and the then the next week seven,” said Kathy Barnhart.
The program became known as the Bread Basket.
She recalled helping at a homeless shelter in Green Bay and remarking how she wished more people attended Waupaca’s weekly dinner.
A man told her to be careful, saying it is better not to have such a need.
“Then, all of a sudden, one week we had 75,” Barnhart said.
That week, the volunteers served Swiss steak and mashed potatoes.
“All that was left for the last man was bread and gravy,” she said. “He thought it was the best meal he ever had.”
This November, the Bread Basket will start its 18th year and will mark nine years at its present location at First United Methodist Church.
The meal is served at the church on Tuesday evenings.
In the beginning, the Bread Basket took place on one night a month.
Volunteers served the meal at St. Marks’ Episcopal Church, and for a time, also handed out bag lunches on Saturdays.
“About three years into the program, we switched to every Tuesday,” said Barnhart, who has been involved with the program since its beginning and serves on its board.
At St. Mark’s, they had seating for 65 people.
As more people started going to the Bread Basket, the weekly dinner outgrew the space.
The program found a new home at First United Methodist Church.
The church donates the use of its facility for the weekly dinner and also storage space.
“Now, we can seat 104 at one time,” Barnhart said.
They serve about 230 meals.
The Bread Basket is open to everyone.
“With so many other programs, there are requirements. We’re here to serve hungry people,” she said. “No questions are asked. You just come in and have a seat.
Carla Hales, chairperson of the board, said for many people, the program offers an opportunity to socialize.
“They sit at the same tables each week,” she said.
Barnhart said if someone has no way to get there, the Bread Basket pays for the person’s taxi ride.
They begin serving the dinner at 4:40 p.m. and are usually done serving and cleaning up by 6:30 p.m.
“We start cooking around 1 p.m.,” Barnhart said. “A group of board members are here every Tuesday by 1 p.m. and then another group is here around quarter to four.”
In addition to the board, the Bread Basket has a “tremendous group of volunteers” who are also committed to the program, she said.
“We serve 51 weeks per year. We take one week off, either the week of July 4 or Christmas, depending how it falls,” Barnhart said. “Out of the 51, the board serve one-half.”
The other half are served by church, school and civic groups, as well as by Waupaca area businesses and families.
“Everyone who eats in can take a carry out,” Barnhart said. “Others stop and pick up a carry out.”
The Bread Basket runs on donations and grants.
In addition, the program receives produce from the Waupaca Community Garden.
Last year, the Bread Basket received about 1,100 pounds of fresh produce from the garden, she said.
Venison is donated to the program through a county program.
“We also have a mysterious gifter who shows up and comes right from the grocery store with boneless hams a couple times per year,” Barnhart said.
In addition, another person donates half a cow several times a year, she said.
Once a year, the Bread Basket receives a large donation of turkeys from Waupaca Foundry.
“We also get a lot of help and support from Neumann’s Piggly Wiggly,” Barnhart said.
She said they are always in need of volunteers, including people who will bake desserts for the meal.
One volunteer does a lot of baking and provides decorated cookies, cupcakes and bars.
Ronda Gustke and Ann Schwalenberg’s classes at Waupaca High School also do a lot of baking for the Bread Basket.
The oldest volunteer at the Bread Basket is 85-year-old Dorothy Halverson and the youngest is 6-year-old Nicholas Liebe.
“Since I’ve started, there’s been some young person who starts and just keeps going until he graduates. They just keep coming,” Hales said.
Barnhart said some people volunteer to do specific tasks each week, such as decorating and setting the tables.
About a month ago, the number of people at the weekly meal started to rise.
They had served about 170 per week.
“At one time, when the economy was real bad, we were up over 300,” Hales said.
The last couple of years, more young people with infants and toddlers have been coming to the Bread Basket, she said.
Individuals and groups interested in volunteering may call Barb Eisenhauer at 715-258-9705.
Donations may be sent to the Bread Basket at P.O. Box 364, Waupaca, WI 54981.