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Meals made with love bring the community together

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Photo by Tamie Meck Loving Spoonfuls volunteer cook and server Grace MacGregor shares a laugh with diners at the July dinner at the Ellen Hansen-Smith Teen Center in Paonia. Created by Jeanne Gatto, the dinners have been bringing community members togethe

When Jeanne Gatto started serving weekly community dinners two summers ago her goal was to put otherwise wasted food to good use.

"I thought it would be awesome if we could use it to get community meals going," said Gatto.

Gatto reached that goal, and in the process brought the community closer together.

Two years ago Gatto was growing food on her farm on Rogers Mesa, and noticed that a lot of fresh produce was going to waste. While much of it went to good use on the compost pile at the Colorado State University Extension research center on Rogers Mesa, she believed it could be put to an even better use.

She first envisioned something along the line of a soup kitchen. She knew there were a lot of people in need, but that was only part of where the need existed. There were also a lot of hard-working parents who didn't have time to prepare a healthy meal for their family.

Gatto placed an ad for volunteers in The Shopper, and didn't get a reply for three months. Rather than give up, she begged her friend, Grace MacGregor, to help. While attending a meeting of the North Fork Outreach in Paonia, Grace stood up and said, "Let's get this thing going," said Gatto.

The four churches that make up the outreach program donated beans and other items and a bean burrito bar fundraiser was served in July of 2013 at the Ellen Hansen Smith Teen Center in Paonia. The meal raised $400, which went to stock the kitchen with staples and food for the next meal.

Rather than charge for meals, the decision was made to accept donations and allow people to give what they could afford or thought was fair.

Loving Spoonfuls was born.

There were two reasons to serve meals on Wednesdays, said Gatto -- other community meals were already being offered on weekends, and it helps break up the week.

Gatto first saw the teen center as a temporary home while she found another kitchen, but it's in such a good place, and it was available. She presented the board with a proposal, and it was accepted.

Wonderful things started to happen, said Gatto. As word slowly got out, people of all walks began attending, and neighbors who barely knew each other were meeting up to share a meal. Barriers were broken down, multiple generations were dining together, and business people and hippies were sharing tables. "That's what I love about it," she said. "That's what my intention was from the beginning."

Meal planning is based on food donations. Volunteers try to prepare a meat option, a vegetarian option, and gluten-free desserts. Meals are made with high-quality, organic, local ingredients when possible, and with health in mind.

In the last two years Loving Spoonfuls has received all kinds of wonderful donations,

from fresh veggies to a freezer of elk meat. "That made some awesome meals," and some really good pots of chili, said Gatto. The first year someone donated a freezer load of peaches, which went into making desserts for the winter.

"It's really fun making meals," said Gatto. "Put the love and intention in the food."

Meals now typically attract between 125 and 150 people. Since summers are so busy and volunteers hard to find, meals are served only on the last Wednesdays of the month from June through August.

While getting volunteers can be a challenge, they try to have at least three in the kitchen, and someone stay after to clean up. Some volunteers return week after week. Gary and Joe Handschumacher have been there since the beginning to set up tables and greet diners. "They are very dedicated," said Gatto. "I can always count on them."

Grace MacGregor is beyond reliable, said Gatto. When she had to leave town a year ago to care for an ailing family member, Macgregor and her and sisters Leah and Laura stepped in. Gatto was gone a year, and the meals never stopped.

Gatto returned to valley in time to attend the July meal, which drew more than 100 diners. The last meal of the summer will be served today starting at 5:30 p.m.

Beginning in September, meals will be served either every week or every other week, depending on donations, because it takes a lot of food to serve 125 people, said Gatto.

Anyone wishing to donate food or volunteer can call MacGregor at 527-3219 or Gatto at 433-5476.

Gatto said she prayed a lot while considering whether to make the tremendous commitment, but she understands that the more one gives in in life, the more one gets back.

She knew that all the hard work was worth it when at one of the first meals, a young boy came to the counter and asked if it cost money to eat. Gatto explained that it was by suggested donation, but he didn't quite understand the concept of a donation. He then told her that his dad had no money. Gatto looked out the window to see the father with a carload of kids.

"It was really heartbreaking," said Gatto. The man and three more children came in to eat, and all four kids had several helpings. The father told Gatto he had lost his job at the mine, and she sent him home with leftovers, and some of the donation money.

"Right then I just felt that, you know. God's hand was right there," said Gatto. "It made me see that anything is possible."

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