Story by S.L. Hansen
HASTINGS/LINCOLN (SNR) — It’s just a sandwich, a piece of fruit and maybe a small treat, but a free sack lunch from Catholic Social Services (CSS) in Hastings or Lincoln can make a huge difference.
“We originally started a sack lunch program in Hastings about 12 years ago in response to the needs of the few homeless people and people who just need help,” said Father Christopher Kubat, CSS director.
For some people, this might be the only nutrition they get all day. For others, it can free up dollars to use for rent, utilities and other necessities.
“It helps families that are living paycheck to paycheck,” Father Kubat said.
Anybody can come for a lunch. No questions asked, no income level to declare, no registration to sign. Word has spread, so that even people outside of Hastings who are in need will come into town for a free meal.
This program was so necessary in Hastings that other organizations who heard about it wanted to collaborate. Various Protestant churches, for example, contribute food and volunteers.
Now on average, more than 40,000 sack lunches are distributed each year out of the Hastings office. The meals are available during business hours Monday through Friday.
Because the sack lunch program was so successful in Hastings — a considerably smaller community with roughly one-tenth the population of Lincoln — Father Kubat was determined to expand the sack lunch program to the Capitol City.
When Matt Talbott Kitchen and Outreach relocated from downtown to North 27th Street and the CSS campus expanded at 23rd and O, the time was ripe.
“There was a void to fill,” Father Kubat said. “People were coming into our food pantry and asking for something [prepared] to eat… There is no place on foot that’s close where people can get a meal.”
Father Kubat knew just who to ask to head up the Lincoln program: a retired couple who shared his heart for the poor: Frank and Jo Lierz. He met with them to discuss the idea about four years ago, and they were happy to help.
The Lierzes got to work almost immediately, recruiting volunteers from various area parishes to help serve. Today, there are somewhere around 60 volunteers running the Lincoln sack lunch program Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m to 1 p.m. Volunteer servers come from Denton’s St. Mary parish and Lincoln’s Blessed Sacrament, Cathedral, North American Martyrs, St. Joseph, and St. Peter parishes.
Every Wednesday, a troop of volunteers from Knights of Columbus Council #9202 show up to assemble approximately 300 sandwiches, using donated bread and a combination of donated and purchased meat.
Sometimes meat becomes an exercise in faith, Father Kubat explained. It can be a real challenge to have enough meat on hand, but God provides.
“We were running low on meat in Lincoln, so we started praying and boom, we got some meat,” Father Kubat says. “It’s amazing.”
Individually wrapped, the meat sandwiches are stored in a freezer. Batches are taken out daily to thaw for the next day’s service. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are made on the fly. It’s an especially popular item on Fridays.
The sandwiches are sacked with a few other items to round out the meal: fresh fruit, chips, maybe a cookie or muffin. It varies each day, depending on what’s on hand.
“I wish to commend my volunteers,” Mrs. Lierz said. “Besides their time, many of them take special treats to share, and we are looking at an average 50 lunches per day.”
And that’s not the end of their generosity.
“These same volunteers are furnishing coffee, coffee cups, creamer and sugar, water cups, hot chocolate, and the peanut butter and jelly,” said Mrs. Lierz.
She said there are more homeless people “than the normal eye sees” in Lincoln. Father Kubat agrees.
“When that Antelope Valley project went in with all those bridges on N, O, P, and Q Streets, we saw a lot more. Homeless people are really there year-round, living under the bridges, and they come to us for a sack lunch.”
With limited hours, Lincoln’s sack lunch program is considerably smaller than the one in Hastings, with only 5,000-6,000 served each year.
“At some point we would love to expand those hours in Lincoln, but we need more resources, and more volunteers,” Father Kubat said.
Mrs. Lierz is up for the challenge, if more people want to commit to the program.
“Our program started out as the ‘Blessed Mother Teresa” lunch program,” she said. “We are now Saint Mother Teresa – truly the best in teaching how to help the needy or poor… Saint Mother Teresa, pray for us!”
“All I can say is, God will provide,” Father Kubat said. “I am personally very grateful to our many collaborates in Hastings and our many volunteers in the Lincoln area that are doing this.”
He noted that the CSS sack lunch program is an opportunity to feed Jesus, a reference to Matthew 25:31-46.
“Why do we do it?” Father Kubat mused. “One word – it’s love.”