Watch a video feature below of the soup kitchen.
WALLA WALLA - Three blocks or so away from the core of the city's lunch spots Dobie Wilbur anticipates his noontime meal.
It's a Wednesday and that means a generous helping of chicken dumpling soup steams in front of him, next to his large, leather-bound Bible and his own sandwich bag filled with quartered oranges.
"This is the best lunch in town," Wilbur said, preparing for serious eating as soon as God's grace is sought over the gathering.
Debbie Tiner can't help but smile from the kitchen doorway at Vineyard Free Methodist Church. She, along with a potful of other church members, is part of the work force behind the church's new soup kitchen.
Tables filling with hungry folks is currency for a morning of labor.
The day outside is indisputably gray, but the dining hall inside the little church nearly glows.
Candles are lit and a single flower in a vase is backlit in a window. Diners greet each other as they gather a dessert, fresh garlic bread and a bowl of the chunky soup fortified with thick carrot slices and homemade noodles.
Tiner - who, along with her husband Michael, is raising 10 children - has been cooking since she was 14. Beginning her Wednesdays in the kitchen at 8 a.m., the 48-year-old makes enough food to feed a small army.
"This pot feeds 100," she said, gesturing to a large gleaming kettle on a stove burner. And that doesn't include a nearby electric roaster brimming with hot soup.
"They can have as much as they want," Tiner said of diners. "We want them to leave full."
The head chef creates her meals from donated food, including breads and desserts from Christian Aid Center. She is hopeful word will get out and more donations will come in, she said. "Hamburger or chicken, you can make anything from chicken and beef ... fish ... I can find a recipe for anything."
The soup kitchen is a fresh outreach for Vineyard Free Methodist Church, Tiner said. It's assumed to be the only free hot lunch in town for the general public and it is open to all who want to come, she added. "People need to be fed. This is a warm place to come ... people are really eager to talk."
The church's new ministry comes to a boil just as the Hunger Report 2010 was released last week by "Feeding America," parent agency of locally known agencies such as Second Harvest and Oregon Food Bank.
It is the largest study of domestic hunger to date, providing detailed data about emergency food distribution systems and the people served.
That includes 37 million Americans, 14 million of those children. Which is a nearly 50 percent increase since 2006, meaning one in eight Americans rely on Feeding America for food, the report says.
The study demonstrates hunger is increasing at a rapid rate in the United States, even in Eastern Washington.
In this region, the study's authors found, 42 percent of households served by food sites include at least one employed adult; half of the clients served by Second Harvest Inland Northwest - including those who use Walla Walla food pantries - report having to choose between buying food and paying for utilities or getting medicine or health care.
Within those numbers are people who are approaching food banks for the first time, said Rod Wieber, director of the Spokane office of Second Harvest Inland Northwest. "The Hunger Report backs up what we've been hearing for the past two years."
About 70 percent of the region's food-provider agencies are serving more people now than ever, and those sites are seeing increases of up to 30 percent month after month, Wieber said. "In the past year it's been a new wave of people coming in for the first time."
And that has meant middle-aged folks who have used up their savings and "now have to reach out for help."
The national report pointed out that about 80 percent of those using food banks in this country have "food insecurity," he noted. "That's the inability to ensure you have enough food on the table to have a healthy life."
More locally, those needing food are relatively lucky, Wieber added. "There are plenty of resources between food banks, soup kitchens, shelters ... people just need to know where to go. They can get help."
As part of the church and soup team, Kelly Smith feels blessed to be involved with the solution to Walla Walla's hunger. A cook for a dozen years now, he signed on immediately to help. "We would like to expand this to two or three days a week," he said. "There is a need."
One man in an overcoat, bent over his soup, declined to give his name but offered his own reason for partaking. "I'm homeless, you know. I lost my apartment and I'm living in my van."
He's down to $200 in savings - from $800 last month, he said - and needs to stretch that as long as possible.
The free soup once a week is at least a drop in the bucket, he added.
Besides filling hungry tummies, Vineyard members hope their ministry will nourish souls. It's one of the basic tenets of what Jesus taught - "feed the hungry, clothe the naked," said Pastor Dan Willms as he ate lunch along with everyone else.
That, however, requires no pushing of personal religious beliefs, Tiner feels. "The atmosphere speaks for that."
Sheila Hagar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8322.
IF YOU GO
Vineyard Free Methodist Church is at 343 S. Third Ave. Soup is served every Wednesday at noon, all are welcome. For more information call 526-0958.