Nanette Levin, Special to The Catholic Virginian

Ronnie Haney and Annie Trent shared a dream. They dreamed of creating a food resource for low-income members of their community who were hungry.

Neither imagined how quickly and dramatically their modest idea would grow. Mac’s Kitchen, named in honor of the late Father Robert McEleney, provides free meals in a poor, rural community. Started in January 2015 with a single monthly meal, it serves over 7,500 lunches annually.

The initiative wouldn’t have been possible without help from Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish, Appomattox, said Haney.

“Father Jim (Gallagher, pastor of Our Lady Queen of Peace), he needs a lot of appreciation because he takes time and comes when he can to different functions we have, and he gives us a shout out for what we do,” Trent said.

Lunches are served every Monday and on the third Saturday of the month. The Saturday meal is prepared at the church by volunteers. On that Saturday the group provides a free grocery store for local residents. It offers vegetables, fruit, meat and other staples for home use.

“We have a lot of older people and either they don’t drive themselves or don’t want to be out after dark,” Haney explained as to why they chose lunch.

The annual budget for the kitchen is about $1,000.

“We’re very good at asking for help,” Haney said.

Gifts of time, food and money 

She cited local farmers who bring cases of lettuce and spinach, as well as 10-20 dozen eggs every week. About 15 volunteers support the effort by cooking, serving and delivering.

“We get a lot done. It’s just all in knowing how to budget yourself, how to budget your time, your money and people,” said Trent.

Haney saw a TV newscast that spotlighted Daily Bread in Lynchburg’s desire to get surplus food delivered to outlying areas. She welcomed  the opportunity. For six months, volunteers from Mac’s Kitchen drove the 60 miles roundtrip weekly to pick up hot meals for Appomattox residents. A grant now pays for deliveries to feed the 100-125 people that come on Mondays.

“We have some very generous, kind people, and the local Knights of Columbus out of St. Theresa Parish, Farmville, also started helping us,” Haney said. “Twice a year they provide us with a meal to give out.”

About 125-200 people attend the Saturday lunches. Last month, in a town with a population of 1,769, a record 245 attended.

“People’s money was running out since so many people have to rely on EDT cards. … Five weeks in the month made it hard on people,” Haney said.

Volunteers’ work isn’t done once lunches are served at Our Lady Queen of Peace.

“We take food out to one of the local low-income housing developments,” Haney said of the additional 40 families they help each week. “They (residents) don’t have cars, or are physically challenged, so they’re not able to drive.”

The meals at Mac’s Kitchen span the culinary spectrum.

“Two years ago, at Christmas, we did the full turkey dinner. We’ve done full ham dinners; it could be spaghetti, could be meatloaf, whatever resources we have at the time. We try to make the meals fit with any kind of USDA requirements – healthy protein, a starch, vegetables, fruit,” Trent said, adding that oftentimes it is the only hot meal their guests have that day “or sometimes in the week.”

‘Educating the community’

In the heavily Protestant community, there is hesitancy among some of the guests to eat at a Catholic church because of “concerns about the unknowns of being Catholic,” Haney said. However, Mac’s Kitchen helps allay those fears.

“They’re always thrilled when they come in and learn our Church is very similar to their church. We’ve had people who have come out to get food come to Mass,” she said. “It’s really been a great outreach program as we’re educating the community. Father Jim always makes everyone feel welcome.”

Father Gallagher credits Haney and Trent for taking “racial and ecumenical relations” to a new level.

“In this day and age, where politicians cause division by their speech, Annie and Ronnie are bringing about unity because Annie is African American and Ronnie is white, Caucasian, so you have African American and white people   together as well as people from different faith traditions — namely Baptists and Catholics working as one,” he said.

Something for the soul

One thing Haney, Trent and the volunteers will not do is judge those they serve.

“Nothing is more shameful than a child going to bed hungry and if we’re in a position to help you with that, don’t worry, we’re not going to talk about you,” Haney said.

The guests, according to Haney, have to make difficult decisions.

“We have people that have to decide during the week whether the cat gets fed or they get fed — or do they share the can of cat food? I’d hate  to think my parents or anyone I know’s parents having to make that decision,” she said.

For Trent, Mac’s Kitchen has been “the best job I’ve ever had in my life.”

“It really is the most rewarding, most fulfilling job. I think the whole group of volunteers feels that way,” she said. “It’s given us whatever was missing in our souls – something that isn’t about us.”