by: Merry MacKinnon, A man waits for a meal of beef bourguignon over mashed potatoes at a recent Saturday Hot Meals offered by All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Woodstock. Held every Saturday, Hot Meals started 15 years ago. The numbers of people being fed have since climbed to about 80 people a week.

Each week a volunteer for All Saints' Episcopal goes around collecting donated food from local grocery stores for the church's Hot Meals program. Consequently, the cooks, who are also volunteers, never know beforehand exactly what they're going to prepare.

But one thing they can count on: They'll be cooking for a record number of people, says Pat Thayer, a volunteer Hot Meals cook who, for years, owned an antique shop in Sellwood. Founded 15 years ago, Hot Meals is a ministry of Woodstock's All Saints' Episcopal Church, serving low-income and homeless people a decent meal once a week.

Thayer is one of several volunteers who was busy on a recent Saturday in April helping to serve that day's meal, which was beef bourguignon over mashed potatoes, a side of vegetables, salad, and ice cream with cantaloupe.

Lately, Thayer and other volunteers have been cooking in greater quantities, because the number of people showing up at Hot Meals keeps rising. Three years ago, Hot Meals served 40 to 50 people, Thayer says. 'Now, it's never less than 75 to 78.'

Seated at one of the dining room tables, a middle-aged woman named Patty finished her meal. 'I'm so full it hurts,' she exclaims. Ironically, Patty began dining at the church after she got a job. When she started working, her added income reduced her food stamp benefits, which dropped from $162 a month to $21 a month. 'My food stamps went down and my rent went up,' explains Patty. 'So I come here.'

It's not clear whether it's due to recession, the high cost of food and gasoline, or joblessness, but the turnout for Hot Meals may be a small indicator of a much bigger problem in this country, believes All Saints' Rector Reverend Stephen Whitney-Wise.

'I think things now are worse than they've been in the past 15 years,' Whitney-Wise says. 'And I think that Hot Meals reflects that.'

A mix of people line up for Hot Meals, which begins serving at 11:30 am every Saturday at the church. Most live nearby or arrive by bicycle or on the bus, and their situations vary.

'There are retired people on fixed incomes who live in neighborhood high-rises,' reports Thayer. 'There are homeless and street people. There are families with children. And we're seeing more and more clean young men with no jobs.'

Thanks to all the volunteers and gifts of food, Hot Meals costs just $2,000 to $3,000 a year to run, says Brooks. Much of the food is purchased for pennies a pound from Oregon Food Bank, with money that comes primarily from the church congregation. 'Two times a month at the church they put a basket out for Hot Meals donations,' Brooks explains.

But while the congregation keeps giving, according to Brooks Hot Meals is receiving fewer donations from local businesses. And since the Food Bank is also strapped for donations, Hot Meals isn't getting the variety it used to receive from them.

But the people eating the food aren't complaining. 'This is a nice meal,' repeats Patty, appreciatively.

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