Two years ago this summer, a group of Monroe citizens concerned about food insecurity decided to establish a soup kitchen.

Residents were polled through an interest survey distributed at town meeting, and from those responses emerged a group willing to donate food, shop, cook, transport diners, serve and clean up. Led by organizers Karen Marysdaughter, Nancy Fenney, and Sharon Smith, the group, Monroe Food for All, served its first meal after much nervousness about the number of expected diners, sufficient food and whether the meal would taste satisfactory.

Informative visits to soup kitchens in Unity and Belfast and training in food safety and cooking through a certified food safety presenter, Waldo County Extension, Penobscot County Extension, and Good Shepherd Food Bank helped with the learning curve.

Eventually, Monroe Food for All became affiliated with Good Shepherd Food Bank to obtain affordable food product. The relationship does not require or imply religious affiliation. Likewise, the meals prepared and served in the basement of Monroe Community Church are not based upon church attendance or membership; the location simply is the town's publicly used kitchen and gathering space.

The meals served Thursdays at 11:30 a.m. are a result of the training and planning. A hot, home-cooked meal is offered for free to anyone who wishes to dine – diners of all ages and diners from all towns, not just Monroe. Many diners arrive when doors open at 10:30 a.m. to enjoy coffee and tea with old neighbors and new friends around tables set with tablecloths and ceramic dishes. The meal is served as in a restaurant, rather than a buffet or family-style. Any leftovers are packaged and sent home with those interested or taken to Monroe shut-ins. While the meal is free and largely depends on community generosity, diners who wish to make a free-will donation may do so.

Longtime Monroe resident and frequent diner Derol Gibbs says, "This lunch is the best thing to happen to Monroe in a long time!"

Monroe Food for All helpers are volunteers who vary from week-to-week and come from as far away as Montville. Children on vacation, including two girls from Virginia who have helped with their grandmother for two summers, also serve. Students from Monroe Elementary School have visited to share their creative writing with diners and local musicians have entertained with their fiddles.

Over time, individual strengths of the core group of volunteers have defined who will shop, who will cook, set tables, drive diners to the meal, sit down to chat with guests, clean up or take home laundry.

"The benefits of visiting with helpers and diners, making new friends, and having an opportunity to give back to the community make the meals as important for us volunteers as the meal itself to some diners," Co-organizer Nancy Fenney says.

In months with five Thursdays, the core crew of helpers receives a break thanks to members of Monroe Lions Club, who prepare and serve the meal. Monroe Lions Club is one of several community groups and individuals who have supported the Food for All effort. A donated ham launched one of the first luncheons and was quickly followed by donated turkeys, and then moose meat which made for a memorable chili.

Among other donations have been garden and CSA surplus, vegetables from the Waldo County Prison Re-entry Garden, weekly donations of Stone Fox Creamery ice cream, bags of potatoes from the Winterport Lodge, cash from the Monroe Rebekkahs and Monroe Lions, and money given in memory of deceased Monroe residents. These accumulated donations, plus cash from recycled cans and bottles collected each week at the door, have allowed Monroe Food for All to purchase its own freezer and refrigerator after having borrowed a freezer from the Monroe Fire Department and shared refrigerator space with the Monroe church for the last two years.

All are welcome to check out the soup kitchen. To know what is being served, search for Monroe Food for All on Facebook, where the weekly menu as well as photos and comments are shared. Diners living within a reasonable distance of Monroe can call 525-4443 to make arrangements for a ride to the meal or for more information.