By MORGAN BROWN/Montana State News

“Way back, there was nothing here for the homeless. My wife and I started feeding the homeless out of our van, and the food bank let me cook the food in their kitchen,” said Paul Thomas, chef at the Bozeman Community Café.

“The Community Café is part of the HRDC’s Emergency Food and Nutrition Initiative, striving to improve food security throughout the Gallatin Valley.”  According to the Community Café’s website, The Human Resource Development Council also runs the Amos house, a transitional living space that was founded by Thomas.

The Community Café provides free restaurant-style dinner, seven days a week, 365 days a year using a pay what you can model.

“Whatever anyone can leave on the table is great. We don’t expect anyone to leave anything, but any amount of money that someone is able to leave is greatly appreciated,” said Lyra Leigh-Nedbor, the Community Café’s childhood nutrition program coordinator.

Customers of the Community Café can expect a delicious and nutritious meal. “We follow FDA guidelines, so every meal we serve will have a protein, grain, fresh fruits and or vegetables if we can get them, but sometimes we have to use canned, and milk,” Leigh-Nedbor said. On the menu for Sunday was beef casserole, mixed vegetables, a warm roll, and milk, according their website (www.cafebozeman.org).

With only three full-time employees and over 100 people to feed per day, the Community Café would not function without a diverse group of volunteers.

“We have a pretty huge volunteer pool. So it’s kind of a complex organism,” Leigh-Nedbor said. Thomas plans and prepares the meals, and volunteers greet, seat, serve and clean up. Volunteers also help package meals for the other childhood initiative programs run by Leigh-Nedbor.

Between eight and 10 volunteers work as servers at the café per night, according to Leigh-Nedbor. Volunteers come from all areas of the community, including churches, schools and businesses to serve for the café.

“Initially when we started the café, we asked a variety of faith-based organizations to commit their time as volunteers. Now we encourage different businesses to volunteer. MSU is responsible for organizing a group to come in every Wednesday,” Leigh-Nedbor said.

Though most customers are low-income individuals, people from all walks of life have eaten at the Community Café.

“There was an elderly gentleman who was recently widowed, and he started coming in pretty consistently. He didn’t know how to cook for himself, and he needed an outlet to interact with others in the community,” said Leigh-Nedbor.

Leigh-Nedbor is working to encourage a more diverse group of individuals to eat at the Café. “One of the things we’re trying to do right now is have more family and community members to come in. The Café is not just for low-income people. It’s for everyone,” she said.

The Community Café also caters to individuals with allergies. “Every evening we offer a soup that is gluten free, dairy free, egg free, nut free,” said Leigh-Nedbor. “But most people end up eating both the soup and the night’s meal.”

Customers of the Community Café never leave hungry. “We offer unlimited seconds,” said Liegh-Nedbor. She thinks that for many, dinner at the Café is the only meal of the day.

The two colorful characters, Leigh-Nedbor and Thomas are leading the Community Café as part of Bozeman’s social reform movement.

Leigh-Nedbor, the café’s youth and workforce development coordinator, handles other programs launched by the Community Café, such as the summer meals program in which packaged meals are distributed to the homes of children who utilize the free school lunch program during the school year, and who would otherwise go hungry when public schools are not in session.

Leigh-Nedbor described Paul Thomas as “a phenomenal chef.”  The innovative eccentric who looks a lot like the customers he serves, plans, prepares and cooks over a 1,000 meals per week with no budget and only the shoddy and variable foodstuffs that come in from the food bank.

“I have eight kids, so I’m used to cooking for a crowd,” he said.

But Thomas didn’t eat a single bite of the over 50,000 meals he cooked for the café in 2014. “I’m Jewish, and the food we serve is not kosher,” he said. “I’ve never tasted anything I’ve made for the Community Café.”

Twenty-one percent of Bozeman’s population lives below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Only recently has the community stepped up to meet the needs of hungry and/or homeless residents in the area, according to Thomas.

“Me and my wife started the Amos house before it ever belonged to HRDC. We saw this need, and we didn’t know how we would to be able to help, but we just got on our knees and prayed for what we needed. We used our own money to open the house as a men’s shelter and to provide meals. We made 100,000 meals out of the Amos house.”

“Now we have nine organizations that help the hungry and homeless. There’s the Community Café, Family Promise, the Amos house, and a lot more,” said Thomas.

– Edited by Abe Feigenbaum

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