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By Adriana Colindres
Twice a month, members of the Galesburg community gather in a basement to get to know one another and to share a free, hot, fresh meal. These community dinners are the work of the Knox Prairie Community Kitchen (KPCK), a not-for-profit organization whose mission is "to serve nutritious food with dignity, respect, and compassion to our neighbors, regardless of situation, background, or ability to pay."
People from all over the Galesburg area, including Knox College students, faculty, and staff, have become involved with KPCK as volunteers and as diners. "We want the dinners to be a place where people come together from all walks of life and share a meal in a nonhierarchical fashion and in a respectful environment-a place that you would want to go," said Alison Ehrhard '11, who volunteers with KPCK and participated in discussions that led to its creation.
KPCK grew out of The Lunch Spot, a communitywide initiative to supply lunches for children for two weeks during an unusually long 2010- 2011 winter break for Galesburg District 205 students. The project brought together numerous sponsors. When Knox College students learned that many Galesburg schoolchildren rely on free and reduced lunches- and wouldn't be able to get those meals during the extended winter break-they decided to help. They donated about 1,600 "meal swipes" from their College dining plans to provide food for the schoolchildren. Each "meal swipe" translated into one sack lunch, typically consisting of a sandwich, fruit, granola bar, cookies, and a drink. Knox volunteers also helped pack the lunches.
The Lunch Spot, which later won an Award of Excellence from the Illinois State Board of Education, ended its run when the school district resumed classes. But members of the Galesburg community, including some Knox College faculty, students, and staff, "wanted to continue addressing hunger and food insecurity in Galesburg," said Rosie Worthen '11, who previously served as KPCK's treasurer and now is its vice president.
Around the same time in early 2011, she and Ehrhard decided to work with Knox faculty member Daniel Beers to research hunger and food insecurity in Galesburg. "We realized we had only anecdotal evidence about what was going on to address hunger issues in the community," said Beers, assistant professor of political science. "We just didn't have a good idea about where the crux of the problem was, and what was or wasn't being done to address it." The research revealed that while Galesburg has numerous programs designed to ease the hunger problem, some people still find themselves in need, particularly toward the end of the month.
During spring and summer 2011, a group of volunteers, some of whom had been involved with The Lunch Spot, met regularly to hammer out how to create a similar program on a larger scale. "I know there are people out there who need food and can't afford to buy it, and who could use a hot meal," said Laurie Sauer, information technologies librarian at Knox's Seymour Library and the KPCK secretary. "That's what brought me in. It's a basic human need -- to eat."
KPCK emerged as a result of those meetings, and plans were made to regularly offer free community dinners to anyone, regardless of financial need. "Anybody can show up. That's a really important value that we hold," said Peter Schwartzman, associate professor and chair of environmental studies and a KPCK board member. "We are an additional resource for food and for community connection. We recognize that knowing people different from us has value."
For the first few months of its existence, KPCK hosted community dinners- some of them potlucks-in various Galesburg locations, while searching for a more permanent home. Eventually, a partnership developed between KPCK and Central Congregational Church. The church has a commercial-grade kitchen in its basement, making it possible for KPCK chefs Steve Henderson and Laura Lytle to cook the meals on-site while other volunteers help with preparation and cleanup.
"It's a wonderful match," said Steve Murmann, moderator of Central Congregational Church. "KPCK's mission matches ours very well. Part of our purpose is to serve."
That's what Knox student Maricruz Osorio thinks, too. She is among the dozens of people -- many with ties to Knox -- who have volunteered during one or more of the community dinners. A junior from Palm Springs, California, Osorio has assisted at nearly every KPCK dinner so far.
"We hear a lot about this ‘Knox bubble,' and it's totally true," she said. "You're in this [Knox] community, this academic community. You go to the [student] clubs and you live together and you spend all this time with these people, and you forget that the outside world exists. The community kitchen is a good way to remind myself that I'm here to give back to the community."
Osorio's specific responsibilities at the community dinners vary. "If they need me to fill up all the water jugs for the entire night, I'll do that. If they need me to give out the food tickets, I'll do that. If they need me to set tables, I'll do that. It doesn't really matter."
Like most other KPCK volunteers, Osorio also partakes in the meals. "You just sit down next to (the people) you just served, and you start eating with them. It's kind of fabulous," she said. "It really is like you're having dinner with your family. You sit down and start talking about whatever's on your mind."
The dinners have become increasingly popular, with nearly 200 meals provided at some of the most recent events. "We took an idea and turned it into something really concrete, and that's very satisfying," said KPCK volunteer Joel Ward '99. "The fact that it benefits the community and individuals makes it even better. People enjoy coming to the meals. It's becoming a dining-out experience for some of them."
Knox has played a key role at the community dinners, and not just through the work of the faculty, staff, and students who volunteer or serve as KPCK board members. The College has sponsored several of the meals, including both of the January 2012 dinners and a May 3 dinner that was added to KPCK's schedule in honor of the installation of President Teresa Amott.
"It's been really cool to see this collaboration between people from the College and the community," Beers said. "It's also really cool to see what an active role the College has taken on- and not just the College, but people who are associated with it: students, faculty, staff members, Knox alumni."
Numbers Show the Need
FISH of Galesburg, a food pantry, serves more than three times the number of people it did a dozen years ago, according to pantry coordinator Lorri Keegan. Demand has increased every year since 2000, when FISH served 5,181 people, she said. FISH served 16,439 people in 2011, and Keegan expects that the figure for 2012 will equal or exceed that.
In addition, according to statistics compiled by Galesburg's The Register-Mail in late 2011, 61.5 percent of District 205 students come from low-income households and are eligible for free- or reduced-price meals at school. At one elementary school, 95.3 percent of students are eligible for free- or reduced-price meals.
What's for dinner?
That depends. On one evening, the menu consisted of porcupine meatballs, mashed potatoes with gravy, broccoli and cauliflower blend, tossed salad, a dinner roll, and bread pudding.
In June, the Knox County Pork Producers sponsored a meal consisting of roast pork loin, mashed potatoes with gravy, mixed vegetables, tossed salad, a dinner roll, and lemon cake. Other main entrees have included meat loaf, chicken fricassee, and spaghetti with meat sauce. Vegetarian options are available.
Want to help KPCK? To volunteer or to find out more, check out the group's website at www.knoxprairiekitchen.org.
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