Steel-cut oats simmered in fruit juice and sprinkled with brown sugar.
Welcome to breakfast at Our Community Kitchen, housed at Episcopal Church of the Ascension –part of a unique partnership in Stillwater, that brought together people passionate about healthy food with the church that has the space for them to cook and share their passion with others.
It’s an “incubation ministry,” says the Rev. Buff Grace from Ascension – the church using its resources to help people in the community use their expertise.
“We have been blessed with the space and the facilities – the meeting place, equipment and kitchen” he said. “We have been fortunate enough to find people who want to use it in a great way that serves the community.”
And that’s how Sara Morrison, a member of the leadership team for the kitchen, sees it as well.
“I am not a member of Ascension, but I am constantly amazed at what a community that congregation is,” she said. “The attitude about the physical space is very accommodating, in that they would rather see the space used instead of just letting it sit empty. It’s a supportive thing.”
On a recent morning, a visitor could find the parish hall at Ascension by following the sounds of laughter and the clink of silverware and china.
The Tuesday and Thursday breakfasts gather together dozens of people each morning, serving more than 5,000 meals since the kitchen started in June, 2011.
The twice-a-week breakfasts are only part of the mission of Our Community Kitchen, though. The women also host classes in Ascension’s kitchen about canning and preparing fresh, healthy food. They bring in teen-agers with developmental disabilities throughout the school year on Wednesdays to teach life skills about cooking. They serve as an incubator for small businesses, like Rustic Pies, which sells homemade pies at farmer’s markets and other venues around Stillwater.
“We are trying to get people access to healthier foods and the question is how do we do that?” said Kristin Klemetsrud, another member of the leadership team.
Klemetsrud, who owned Savories in Stillwater for two decades, knows food. She speaks about the wonders of butternut squash prepared with a little cinnamon, and also the life skills that cooking can teach teens with developmental delays. She’ll tell you the secret to great steel-cut oats while directing teens in the kitchen on preparing the food served at the breakfast.
One of the teens, Micaela Flowers, is a frequent volunteer in the kitchen – arriving around 6 a.m. on summer mornings – because her Girl Scout troop once came on a Monday night to prepare crepes for the next morning’s breakfast.
“Kristin asked if anyone would like to come back and help serve the next morning,” she said. “I came back and I stuck with it.”
She’s now become the go-to person with her friends for cooking, she said. She loves to make food like French toast or cheesy potatoes.
“Any time I can find a nice kitchen, I will cook for friends,” she said. “I clean up after myself, so their parents usually let me.”
Diverse Participants Mean Greater Community Connections
The breakfasts attract senior citizens from subsidized housing nearby, along with other community members. A Bible study from the Presbyterian church comes every week, drawn in by the community feel and the great food, they said.
“We like the round table to sit at,” said Bob Hagstrom, a retired builder. “We like the community aspect of it, too, and seeing people that we know.”
The men jokingly disagreed on which food is best – was it the pancakes or the eggs? But Jon Stratte summed it up with a quote from his father: “All food is good.”
The food is paid for, in large part, through donations made by people who come to eat, although anyone is welcome, even if they cannot pay.
Morrison sits and chats with their “regulars” every week, she says. For a number of them, they would have had a sugar cereal that morning instead of a healthy meal with eggs and vegetables, she said.
“They appreciate that the food tastes good and that they are welcome, that everybody sits at the same tables,” she said. “It’s not like a restaurant where if you come in alone, you sit at a table by yourself – you’re at a table with others.”
Serving From Abundance
One breakfast morning, Morrison said, a woman came in “who clearly needed to be there, and she wouldn’t be able to donate for her breakfast,” Morrison said.
She came at the end, and the volunteers at Our Community Kitchen were finishing up, making sure that she had enough to eat and packaging up food for her to take home.
“And she said to us, ‘This is just like being at a spa!’” Morrison said. “I do not know if she had ever been at a spa, but to her, having a healthy breakfast and having people care that she was getting enough was like being at a spa. I’ve never forgotten that.”
Grace said he likes the idea that the space at Ascension is incubating this project in the community.
“Before, the kitchen and the parish hall in the mornings and the daytime were quiet and dark,” he said. “All you heard was the refrigerator humming. Now it’s full of people who are eating and building relationships and sharing nutritious food. And volunteers who weren’t serving at 6 in the morning now have a great reason to get up and work together. “
Timing is Everything
For Ascension, the opportunity to partner with Our Community Kitchen came at just the right time, said vestry member Jen Truman.
“We had adopted the idea of ‘Mission, Ministry and Management’ and that allowed a few of us to focus on mission,” she said. “At the same time, this idea for Our Community Kitchen was percolating. It just started to come together at the same time.”
The church was just starting to look at the Stillwater community and wonder how to reach them, she said. And when Our Community Kitchen came around, the church looked at their large kitchen and parish hall and thought it was a great fit.
“We want to expand our reach into the community and use our space,” Truman said. “There is a strong feeling on vestry that we have material wealth and we want to share it with others.”
The church also benefits from housing the kitchen, she said.
“We also understand our spirits may need feeding and we feed ourselves with this collaborative project.,” she said. “These three ladies have been so incredibly committed and have been a source of inspiration. They have nourished our community with their commitment.”
“It’s A Very Spiritual Thing”
Julie Luna, a member of Ascension who helped Our Community Kitchen create a business plan, said the goals of that group fit perfectly with their faith community.
“It is more than feeding people, it’s engaging people and teaching them about growing food, preparing it and eating it,” she said. “It’s really about education people about food and to me that is a very spiritual thing.”
The growth of Our Community Kitchen has meant a growing process for the vestry, as well, Truman said. Recently, the vestry and the three women put together a fiscal agreement.
“We had to figure out how to be fair to that group and our vestry,” she said. “We had to trust each other and it’s been a very strong growing experience for us.”
And members of the church will volunteer in the kitchen, or attend breakfast as they can, she said.
Diane Rollie, another member of the kitchen’s leadership team, said the partnership benefits both groups.
“This has just been a great experience for all of us and a whole new circle of friends for me, with Ascension and the people we serve and the leadership team,” she said. “It’s a win-win for all of us.”
Breakfast is served at Our Community Kitchen from 7 to 10 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays at Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Stillwater, MN. Class schedules about canning and healthy food can be found at their website.
Our Community Kitchen: http://www.ourcommunitykitchen.org/.