On the last Sunday in June, The Bridge – a social service agency operated out of Centenary United Methodist Church in downtown St. Louis – served its 750,000th meal.
Volunteers dished out just over 6,000 meals in 2006, the first year The Bridge was open. Last year, more than 171,000 people accepted a free hot meal.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Rachel Lippmann sat down with Kathleen Wilder, the pastor at Centenary and the executive director of The Bridge, to reflect on what it means that so many people are in need.
What was your initial reaction when you realized that in the 5-6 years you’ve been open, there were 750,000 meals that you’ve delivered to those in need?
Actually, I don’t know that I can say that we’ve served 750,000 meals without crying. It’s an amazing milestone, and it’s a very sad milestone. I keep telling our staff that I don’t want a sign outside that says a million served, but the important thing is that they are served. So it’s been an overwhelming experience seeing how many people come here on a regular basis for food.
Five years ago, the people who came were largely men. Over time, we’re finding many more women and children, which makes it very sad. About 20 percent of the people that we serve are food-insecure, which means that they have housing and they have employment, but they don’t have enough money to pay the rent, utilities, maybe their meds, and to eat. Our work helps them keep their housing. 21 percent of our people are veterans, and the rest is a mixture.
What stories are hiding behind that 750,000 number?
Amazing people. A couple of summers ago, we helped a family that had nine children who were about to be sleeping in a park because they had timed out of the shelters that were available to them. Two years now, they’ve been housed, and the kids are all well. Countless people who there but for the grace of God are us. The face is a kaleidoscope of human beings to itty bitty babies to older people, from people who are housed and employed to people who have been living on the street for 15 to 25 years.
How long to do you think it will take to get to the next milestone?
I would not want to project, but I’m afraid … I believe that we’ll hit our millionth meal a lot faster, especially as we look to being proactive and helping people who are food-insecure. And if it’s because we’re able to help 40 percent of our people who are food-insecure instead of 20 percent, then I’m going to feel better about that millionth milestone than it all being people who are displaced.
What do you fear most about reaching the next milestone, whatever that ends up being?
When we hit our 500,000th, I said I don’t want to be doing this every time we turn around. So we decided that we would acknowledge the 750,000th. We’ll acknowledge our millionth meal when it hits, and I will feel good that there are people who are alive because we were able to meet their hunger needs. But I will cry that that need is out there.