The Tomah Community Table is 10 years old.

The organization, which hosts one free meal per week, began in September 2009, the first Monday following Labor Day.

To support the organization’s 10-year milestone, there will be two celebrations, one on Sept. 9 and one on Sept. 16.

On Sept. 9, Peace Lutheran Church, which is hosting the meal that week, will bring a cake for the celebration. On Sept. 16, all the past volunteers who served on a weekly basis are invited to attend a reunion and celebrate.

Organizer Laura Bishop said the organization’s roots began in 2008 after the youth group at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church went on a mission trip to Minneapolis.

During the trip, they visited a program called Loaves and Fishes, which established eight sites throughout the city and provided meals five nights a week. When the group returned to Tomah, members went on a tour of Tomah’s Neighbor for Neighbor Food Pantry. Bishop said that planted a seed.

“We talked to the church, and we went to the Ministerial Association and put the word out,” she said. “There’s probably a group of 10 to 12 people from different churches that started meeting that fall, and it took about a year to figure out where we were going to go, how we would do it and get all the pieces in place, and then we started after Labor Day in 2009.”

Now every week, the Community Table arranges for various organizations to prepare a free meal to be served at Tomah’s Masonic Lodge on East Saratoga Street from 4:30-5:30 p.m., with the exception of Labor Day, Memorial Day, Christmas and snow days.

Ken Kuhn, a member of the Masonic Lodge and Community Table volunteer, said the Masonic Lodge has been the Community Table’s location since the beginning. He said the facilities are ideal — there is kitchen space and enough room for Community Table guests.

Bishop said the location has worked out well.

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“Many people knew about the lodge because that’s where the DMV was at the time and Breakfast with the Easter Bunny,” she said. “It was a common, central location and non-denominational; we thought it was important not to be at one church.”

An average of 60 people attend the free meal each week, Bishop said. It’s only hosted once a week because volunteers don’t want to burn themselves out running it and because of the organization’s mission to “help stretch somebody’s food budget ... and to have a special place for them to be with other people.”

“I don’t think we’d be able to do it every night with our limited resources with a town this big,” she said. “I don’t think we’d have enough people ... to do it consistently for every night or three nights a week.”

The Community Table works in conjunction with Neighbor for Neighbor Food Pantry. Bishop said the majority of their referrals come from the food pantry as they let their clients know about their organization; however, a lot of senior citizens also attend.

“They eat alone every night, so one night a week they get together and gab with their friends,” she said. “People will tell me they don’t cook because it’s just them, so to come and have a full meal is just really nice, it’s not simply or only the hunger of the belly, but also the hunger of the heart.”

Bishop is and isn’t surprised Community Table has lasted 10 years.

“I do the scheduling, and 2019 was the best year for scheduling,” she said. “People don’t have assigned nights; it’s just by hook and crook ... and with the exception of one day, we’re scheduled until 2020, which we have never, never been. All year it’s been three months out. That, I guess, is a good indicator that people are still supportive.”

Kuhn agrees.

“Members, when they started at the lodge, thought ‘it will never go (on for long),’” he said. “They were equally surprised today to say ‘good for you, it’s still going strong’ in a very supportive way.”

Bishop thanked the donors who have helped keep the organization up and running — the guests who have contributed money to the free-will offering jar, which helps pay for the coffee, napkins, soap, to-go containers, cleaning supplies, overhead costs to the Masonic Lodge and other expendables; to Kwik Trip which has donated the milk every week since 2009; to Fort McCoy, which donated the metal trays that are used each week; to the Remembering Jesse Parker Charity which donated funds to support the mission in 2019; and to Mark Oelke, who gave an initial gift of $5,000 in 2009 to help get the organization going and has maintain its financial viability.

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Meghan Flynn can be reached at meghan.flynn@lee.net.

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