Oak on Main revived the Feeding Our Friends program Feb. 8, providing free meals for the Pullman community every Tuesday from 4-6 p.m.
Michael Byrne, co-owner of the restaurant, said he and Frank Maryott founded the program in 2017 to distribute free meals on a monthly basis. Feeding Our Friends became a weekly program two years ago in response to the community’s need for food security during the pandemic.
“It’s a very small thing, but it’s something. Hopefully it inspires others,” Byrne said. “It takes a lot of effort to feed the amount of [people with] food insecurity, and just one person can never come close. If everyone were to pitch in, it might at least start to make a dent.”
Oak on Main canceled the program in November 2021 due to a lack of funding and donations. Byrne said the decision was devastating, but it was necessary to keep the restaurant’s lights on and pay his staff.
He said he wanted to continue Feeding Our Friends because he was raised as one of five children in an Irish Catholic family that always contributed to food banks.
In February, the Community Action Center approached the restaurant to bring back Feeding Our Friends, supplying funding and volunteers. The CAC provides $250 per week for the program to cover the cost of purchasing ingredients, Byrne said.
Tahnee Runions, volunteer and CAC housing specialist, said CAC wants to reach more of the Pullman community and raise awareness of the programs CAC offers like employment resources for homeless youth. When she first started her job at the organization in November, Runions said she was surprised to learn how prevalent homelessness is in Whitman County.
“Pullman does have a homeless population, it’s just not a very visible one. It’s not like a big city like Spokane or Seattle where they’re on every street corner, but they are there,” Runions said.
Janna Jones, volunteer and CAC housing solutions member, said the program is not only for homeless individuals, but it also serves people who need a break from cooking or need to pay rent that week.
“It’s there for that person who doesn’t have anything to eat. It’s there for that person in their apartment who’s lonely and would like to come down. It’s there for the broke friends who haven’t seen each other in forever and this is the only way they could get together and share a meal,” Jones said. “It’s all of those elements that are what help keep our community strong: feeding each other, being around each other and taking off the pressure when we can.”
Byrne said community members who are able to pay can place money in Oak on Main’s donation box or donate when they order food on the restaurant’s website. The donations help cover the cost of purchasing and making meals, he said.
During the pandemic, Byrne said he saw a decline in donations, but he understands that many people cannot afford to make that financial commitment each week.
Every Tuesday, Feeding Our Friends volunteers pack “cold boxes” of salads, prepare hot food and distribute the meals. Volunteers pack each salad box with a flyer that demonstrates how to contact CAC and find its resources.
Byrne said the restaurant prepares fresh food purchased from on-sale items at local grocery stores and US Foods. On Feb. 22, Oak on Main cooked sherry chicken and rice.
Community member Dale Henthorn started using the Feeding Our Friends program last week and attended Feb. 22. Henthorn said it is a blessing to have reliable meals.
“My wife is disabled, and it takes a lot of work,” he said. “Every little thing like this helps out.”
Feb. 22 was Jones’ first day as a volunteer for Feeding Our Friends. She said she believes the program’s impact will have a positive ripple effect on the community.
Providing a space where people can learn about CAC resources like housing is just as important as the nutritional value of the food itself, Jones said.
“It’s one of the most absolute basic needs,” she said. “We can’t have art, commerce or education unless we are fed and housed. We need to worry about those basic needs with our community first.”