Loaves & Fishes provides family atmosphere at community meals

Outreach ministry serves meals three days a week at Catholic church

APPLETON — As Loaves & Fishes of the Fox Valley puts away the leftovers from their annual Christmas dinner, they are already planning for the next holiday feast, which will be held for Easter.

Holidays are important for this nondenominational Christian outreach, which serves free evening meals three days a week at St. Therese Parish Activity Center, 213 E. Wisconsin Ave.

Members of the Second Strings of Neenah, a volunteer musical group, play Christmas music during a free Christmas dinner sponsored by Loaves & Fishes of the Fox Valley Dec. 18. Loaves and Fishes serves meals on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at St. Therese Parish Activity Center in Appleton. Over 180 people, including volunteers, attended the event. (Brad Birkholz | For The Compass)

On Dec. 18, they hosted a specially-prepared dinner that featured all the fixings and trimmings of a holiday meal. A Christmas tree, decorated by the guests themselves, adorned the dining room.

These special dinners are held at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, said Loaves & Fishes executive director Shannon Krahn. “We put up a tree with lights on it and our guests pick out ornaments and trim it. We started this when we moved into St. Therese (in 2017). One of the guests put Christmas carols on from his phone and everyone helped decorate. It makes everyone feel more a part of it,” she added.

Loaves & Fishes is staffed primarily by volunteers who prepare meals onsite on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Chef Michael Congrove plans the meals and leads the volunteer cooks. Most of the food comes from the St. Joseph Food Program; some food is donated and some is purchased. The meals serve about 100 people.

While the weekday meals are important to guests, staff and volunteers, holidays bring out even more of a feeling of camaraderie. The holiday meals see an increase in attendance to closer to 200 and require more volunteers because guests are served at their tables rather than cafeteria style.

Each table has a festive tablecloth and there are added activities, such as music and gift-giving at Christmas. This year that included carolers and a women’s string quartet, the Second Strings of Neenah. “We make it a special night for everyone,” said Krahn.

“Holidays can be a lonely time for people. It is nice to have three meals a week so people can enjoy a festive atmosphere. They refer to us as family,” added Krahn. “We also keep an eye out for people who are homeless, living in their cars or people with special needs. If we see someone who needs a hat or coat, our volunteers often help out. We also give them referrals to other nonprofits.”

While there is no shortage of volunteers, Loaves & Fishes always welcomes new volunteers. “Some of our volunteers are regulars; others come when they can,” said volunteer coordinator Sue Danreiter. “I tell people to give as much or as little as you want. We make it fun; it’s not just a job.” Volunteers can sign up online, making the process easier for busy people.

“There is a little bit of a letdown after the holidays,” she said, “but we really have very loyal volunteers and they get just as excited as the guests do for our holiday dinners.”

In addition to the lull between holidays, volunteers are also needed during summer. For more information on the meal program, visit loavesand fishesfv.org. Volunteer information is available by calling (920) 750-0964.

When it comes to donations, Krahn said, “I tell people to imagine a time when you had an event for 100 or more people. That is like what we do three times a week. Everything we use is commercial-sized. We need garbage bags, gloves … other items besides food.

“Some of this comes through donation from local businesses,” added Krahn. “We are always having to buy supplies so financial donations are better so we can buy exactly what we need.”

Loaves & Fishes was housed for 16 years at Trinity Lutheran Church in downtown Appleton until that property was sold. St. Therese Parish offered its activity center as a new permanent site and the organization moved there in 2017. It served 14,537 meals in 2018.