Heart of Treasure Valley

Feeding our Friends: Free dinners in the park for the hungry, with servings of love

It’s a few minutes before 4 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon. There’s no sign about what is about to happen, no flyers or pamphlets or arrows pointing the way. It just happens. Word of mouth.

It happens because of the commitment of three people who can’t imagine being anywhere else.

Every week for five years now, these three plus a few others — a tiny group of volunteers — bring dinner to Ann Morrison Park on Saturdays — rain or shine, wilting heat or bitter cold. Everyone’s welcome.

“We just say, if you’re hungry, we have food,” says Michelle Cuevas, one of the trio of founders.

“We want to serve them. They’re down on their luck; a lot of them are veterans, a lot of them maybe just have lost their jobs, didn’t have enough money in savings, can’t afford the housing, living in their cars — and we want to serve them.

“They’re people, just like we are.”

Just before 4 p.m., a pickup drives into the parking lot and pulls close to a pair of trees; that’s Benton Ballinger with supplies and beverages. Within minutes the tables are deployed, as they are every week, in the shade at the end of the duck pond.

“The people are awesome,” says April Peterson, who volunteers with her daughter. “One move and we could be in their position, so I hope that there would be people to help us if we ended up like that.”

A roasting pan of pulled pork comes out of the car, with buns and barbecue sauce and pineapple rice. Other weeks, there’s pasta and salad, and sometimes there’s fruit. There’s always dessert. Napkins and forks, cups of tea, plastic bottles of water, to-go boxes. And laughter: The servers and servees greet each other like long-lost friends.

Because that’s what they are. The Saturday meal is called Feeding our Friends.

“I think my greatest joy is getting to know the people,” says Cuevas.

The meal started when the pastor of True North Church, working at a doughnut shop at the time, brought leftover doughnuts to the park. Seeing that the men and women, and families, too, needed more nourishment than that, he proposed the Saturday meal.

“Well, I have to admit, the first time I came down here, I was skeptical,” says Cuevas. “Skeptical in the sense that I was scared.”

Born and raised in Idaho, she hadn’t really known much about homelessness.

“I was thinking, OK, what about these people? Do they have guns? Do they have knives? Are they going to beat me up? Are they going to steal my wedding ring? You know, don’t wear jewelry.

“And then,” she says, “I got to know them.”

Week by week, they started calling each other by their first names and learning their stories. There’s Larry with a big white beard, who is Santa Claus at Christmas. There’s Walt, who has autism — as does Cuevas’ daughter, so they talk about that. There’s another Larry, a veteran and brilliant computer guy. There’s gentle James, philosopher, activist and monastic.

“These people that come down here have just made my heart so full of joy,” says Cuevas.

Fourteen-year-old Zoey Peterson needed some community service hours, so she volunteered, and that was a year ago. She’s put herself in charge of desserts, a combination of loving to bake and of being scooped up in the camaraderie of the Saturday meals.

“I just like making people happy. And they like food,” she says. But truthfully, it’s more than that: “There’s a lot of people here that I care a lot about.”

True North initially sponsored the meal, but after the church closed in December 2017, Cuevas and two others took on the financial responsibility. They serve as many as 150 people a week in the summer and as few as 10 or 20 in the winter. Tiffani Bullock buys supplies, and Ballinger drives and does the drinks. Cuevas shops for groceries and scavenges from her company’s potlucks and catered meals.

“Leftovers go home with me and then I make a meal,” she says. The Stuffed Olive, a restaurant in Eagle, donates a dinner every two weeks, but it takes an additional $300-$400 a month to pay for the food. What is particularly heartrending about these July Saturdays is that they might be the last.

“It doesn’t cost a lot,” Cuevas says, but it’s too much for the trio to keep going. They would dearly love for a church or nonprofit to take the lead so they could be merely helpers. “If we could get somebody to just help a little bit — and maybe volunteer one hour a month — we’d be able to keep this going.

“Unless something changes, Aug. 2 will be our last day.” The words bring tears to her eyes. “I don’t know who’s going to …” She falters. “They won’t have a meal. They’ll go hungry that day.”

“I’ll eat less if that will help,” volunteers one patron, and that makes her laugh. But it doesn’t ease the pain. She notes how much her heart has opened since the first day she served a meal.

“It hurts you; it really does. Because — they’re family. You wouldn’t want your uncle or your grandfather or your children to go hungry.”

Boise has a calendar of friendship feasts and community meals that rotate from church to church throughout the week and month, mostly Monday through Friday. Feeding our Friends is small enough that it hasn’t made the calendar, but it offers the only meal on Saturday evening. And it has come to mean a lot to everyone there.

Sandra Peterson was drawn into volunteering through her daughter, Zoey. She remembers how nervous her daughter was in the beginning, and how their sentiments have changed so deeply. “(Zoey) is so worried about this ending because she doesn’t want to miss her friends. She’s not talking about the servers — she’s talking about the people we help. …

“It’s become part of what we do and who we are now. I don’t want to say goodbye to these people, either. They’re good people.”

James, who prefers not to give his last name, used to be homeless. “Even though I have a roof over my head right now, that doesn’t answer all needs right there,” he says. He waits for everyone else to go through the line before he takes a plate. He has little money for groceries, and if it wasn’t for Feeding our Friends, he’s not certain what he would have for dinner. He’s come to depend on it.

“It’s all out of the love and kindness of their hearts. With whatever donations, however great and however small … they manage to put it on, and they make a lot of people smile and fill a lot of bellies. It’s a wonderful thing. …

“I like to make sure I’m at least one that says, thank you. Great meal. Once again, thank you.”

Want to help?

Contact Michelle Cuevas at healthymichelle@msn.com or visit their Facebook page at True North Feeding our Friends.

Visual journalist Katherine Jones has been with the Statesman since 1990. She was named the Idaho Press Club’s Photographer of the Year in 2017, and Reporter of the Year in 2014. She frequently combines words, photos and video to tell her stories.If you like seeing stories and photos like this, please consider supporting our work with a digital subscription to the Idaho Statesman.