The St. Ben’s Meal Program started serving in-person meals again in September after an 18-month absence due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted photo)

After 18 months of closure during the pandemic, all 60 groups that sponsor meals for the St. Ben’s Community Meal Program were able to return to serving the nightly meals.

“We were just surprised and so happy that they all came back,” said Br. Bob Wotpyka, the Community Meal Program director. “Not only did they all come back, but all the groups also stayed together and resumed their original night. Most nights, more than one group prepares and serves the meals, and they consist primarily of churches and other organizations.”

Since 1970, the Capuchin Franciscan social justice ministry has offered meals to Milwaukee’s chronically poor and homeless. Through the program, interfaith organizations provide approximately 2,000 homemade meals per week.

The St. Ben’s Community Meal serves a hot meal six nights a week, Sunday to Friday, from 5:15 to 6:30 p.m., and takeaway lunches on Fridays from 1 to 4 p.m.  All are welcome.  The meal hall is located at 930 W. State St., across from the Milwaukee County Jail, at the lower level of St. Benedict the Moor Church. The entrance is at St. Anthony Apartments.

The city of Milwaukee Health Department came to the meal hall and approved the set-up and protocols that are in place.

“Everyone said they felt comfortable and welcomed, and everyone is cooperating with the seating distances, as well as sitting down at the tables while we bring dinner to them,” he said. “Before COVID-19, we would let people choose what they wanted, such as light meat or dark meat, fruits, salads, etc. But now, the menu of the day is the menu of the day. There have been no complaints.”

Sept. 7 was chosen to reopen the dining room so they could ease back into providing in-person meals, because they expected lighter crowds.

“We were in full expectation that people would be back in their offices, that the government would cut federal assistance and the increase in Food Share, but it doesn’t look like downtown has returned as we had expected,” he said. “We also know that more people return in need after the 15th of the month because assistance usage comes in the beginning, and they begin to run short mid-month.”

When the Community Meal Program closed in March 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic, it offered takeaway dinners for two weeks. However, it didn’t go as well as organizers had hoped because the guests had no place to eat the meals. Afterward, St. Ben’s delivered meals to shelters and Heartland Housing, a nonprofit that runs supportive housing in Wisconsin and Illinois.

“Many folks live on zero income after the rent is paid, so we are happy St. Ben’s could reopen for sit-down services rather than delivery,” Br. Wotpyka said.

Br. Wotpyka said there were happy, relieved volunteers who offered ready smiles and hugs — with gloves and a mask, of course.