Cuyahoga Falls church marks 30 years of providing free monthly meals

Bethany United Church of Christ offers drive-through event May 15

Phil Keren
Kent Weeklies
Pictured in the foreground from left in the kitchen at Bethany United Church of Christ are: Mary Joe Trail, Cindy Kahn, and Tammy Jensen. In the back row from left are 
Andy McVan and Rebecca Wachover. This photo was taken before the COVID-19 pandemic. The church is marking its 30th anniversary of offering a free monthly meal.

CUYAHOGA FALLS — A city church is celebrating its 30th anniversary of offering a free monthly meal.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the meal is being provided in a drive-through format. Volunteers at Bethany United Church of Christ, 1235 Broad Blvd., will distribute food in the church's parking lot on May 15 from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Church member Kathy Keenan, who has coordinated the Bethany Kitchen meals for nearly a decade, said everyone is welcome to drive through to pick up the food handed out by volunteers. In addition to a complete meal, cupcakes will be given away as part of the church celebrating three decades of free monthly community meals.

Keenan said the church obtains food from both the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank and through purchases made using donated funds.

Though she had not volunteered to help with meals before becoming the coordinator, Keenan said she had experience with preparing large meals.

"I had been doing some of my own private catering for parties and weddings," Keenan said. "…Cooking was my hobby."

Volunteer John Mancinelli washes dishes during one of the free community meals that Bethany United Church of Christ has offered for 30 years. This photo was taken before the COVID-19 pandemic.

History of the meal

The first meal was served in May 1991 at a time when leadership wanted to "increase the community outreach of the church," said Rollie Seguin, who was one of the founders of Bethany Kitchen.

"Preparing food and sitting down and sharing food with each other was an important part of our congregation," Seguin said. "We were looking at a way of reaching out to the wider community…[We thought] why don't we give that a shot, except share [the meal] with folks from our community who may need [food] and/or fellowship, invite them to share that at our church."

While the very first meals got off to a slow start, Seguin said, "very quickly, we grew."

The meals were initially offered on the third Saturday and then from 1992 to 2003, were provided on both the third Tuesday and the third Saturday of the month. The Tuesday meal was discontinued, but the meal on the third Saturday has continued for three decades.

About 800 people were served meals in 1992, and the number grew to nearly 900 in 1993 and more than 1,000 in 1994, Seguin said.

Minister 'impressed' with outreach

Before the pandemic, there were about 12-15 volunteers who helped prepare and serve the meal in the social hall. During the pandemic, there are five volunteers who are cooking and then distributing the food to people who drive through the church's parking lot.

The Rev. Kim Cran became the church's leader in 2019. When she interviewed for the ministerial position, she recalled she was "so impressed" with the volunteer-driven meal that was offered.

"It was such a joy to see that outreach," Cran said. "…It's important for a church to have something that connects it to the outside."

Oftentimes, an outreach program such as the meal is orchestrated by the minister, but Cran said it is members of the congregation who are leading the charge and "embodying the ministry."

Before the meal was temporarily recast into a drive-through format, Cran said she would greet attendees and then join them to share in food and conversation.

Meal continues in drive-through format

Cran said it was "heartbreaking" when COVID-19 forced the stoppage of meals in the social hall.

Keenan said a drive-through meal was served in March 2020, but no meals were served from April through July of last year.

"We wanted to keep it going," Keenan said. "We found a way to move it to the outside."

After the drive-through set-up returned in August 2020, Keenan said they served meals on the first and third Saturdays in December, January and February, but discontinued the distribution on the first Saturday due to lower attendance.

Cran praised volunteers for pivoting and setting up a drive-through event to distribute food in the church parking lot. Those efforts included enduring freezing temperatures while handling out meals to people who pulled through the parking lot.

Not having the meal inside the church's walls means a critical aspect of the event is missing: people gathering around tables, visiting with one another and making connections.

Cran said shee takes pride in what the church's volunteers provide to the community.

"[The meal] is part of who Bethany is as a church," Cran said. "I'm pleased to see people working together to meet the needs of our community."

Reporter Phil Keren can be reached at pkeren@thebeaconjournal.com, or on Twitter at @keren_phil.