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Posted: September 3, 2020 DECI Member Feature: The Community Table

At 9 a.m. on a rainy Monday, you might expect things to be a little quiet in Downtown Eau Claire, but that’s not the case if you’re visiting The Community Table at 320 Putnam St. Volunteer teams are busy preparing meals, sorting snack bags, and organizing pantry items. And Executive Director, TJ Atkins, is living for it. 

It’s clear that TJ loves her job. It’s also clear that her mission is to make you love it, too. 

“I’m taking time off for the first time since I started as Executive Director, and I warned the staff that I’m probably going to call 2-3 times a day!” she jokes.

“There is not a day that is the same, and I really enjoy it,” she says, “My job is Chief Problem Solver.”

Relentlessly enthusiastic support is exactly what has driven The Community Table for 27 years as they tackle the very serious issue of food insecurity in Eau Claire. 

The organization was started by local church members who saw a growing problem in Eau Claire and came together to solve it with the ultimate midwestern fixer: a potluck. 

They’ve grown substantially since then. The Community Table currently serves a free, hot meal seven days a week, every day of the year, to anyone who comes to their door — no questions asked. In addition, they provide meals to the nearby daytime resource center, Positive Avenues, 3 days a week, have been delivering meals to individuals in COVID-19 quarantine, and started to run a food pantry every other week. 

Preparing nutritious, from-scratch meals for upwards of 120 people every day can be a monumental task; especially when you consider that every meal requires a team of around 12 volunteers to prep, serve, and clean up.  

“It’s a constant battle to recruit volunteers,” says TJ. “Due to the pandemic, it’s been even more difficult to fill shifts. A lot of our volunteers are older and have not been able to give their time because of their increased health risks related to COVID.”

That struggle to recruit volunteers has been one of a few challenges presented by the pandemic. The organization has had to pivot from serving cafeteria-style in their dining room to serving people to-go meals at the front door. They are also scanning volunteer temperatures before they enter the building and have had to limit the number of people allowed in the kitchen at one time. 

However, the biggest challenge is not being able to check-in with guests in the same way. “It’s the connection that we’re really missing,” says TJ. “The conversations our outreach coordinator is able to have with our diners are very important, and it’s been difficult to do that when trying to have those conversations in the parking lot.” 

“But, we’re doing what we can to protect our guests, as well as our volunteers and staff,” says TJ. “We’re such a small staff, if someone gets sick, we’re really in trouble.” 

Nonetheless, the overriding feeling at The Community Table is optimism. Despite some recruiting challenges, volunteers are showing up. They have been able to successfully adapt and expand their services to continue to meet needs in Eau Claire. Ultimately they have found a way to keep moving forward. 

That’s crucially important given the increases in demand they have seen in recent months. TJ and the team have observed an increase in both the numbers served and a change in the demographics of their guests, which includes more children. Among all those served at The Community Table last month, 71 were children. 

The Community Table is working every single day (literally) to make sure there are meals available when people need them, and we are so grateful they do. However, this work cannot happen without the support of the broader community. Take a moment to learn more and consider providing some support if you are able.   

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