Reedsburg’s Open Table meals permanently ends due to COVID-19, lack of volunteers
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Reedsburg’s Open Table meals permanently ends due to COVID-19, lack of volunteers

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The open table meals in Reedsburg have permanently come to an end. But it was for a variety of reasons, other than health and safety of the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers decided to conclude the meals after 11 years.

With the COVID-19 pandemic causing financial hardship for many sponsors, businesses and non-profits who donate towards the meals, many of the people on the committee getting older and the guests mainly in the senior citizens age group, the event’s organizer, Sue Johnson, said the timing was right to conclude the meals. It was also becoming a challenge to find people to help out at the meals.

“We thought it was maybe a natural time for it to discontinue,” Johnson said. “It was getting to a point where it was becoming challenging to operate.”

Johnson said it was a tough decision to discontinue the meals, but also felt it was the right option.

“We thought maybe this is the time to let it go,” Johnson said.

Johnson, a Reedsburg resident, said 24,192 meals were served in more than a decade. People would attend, not only from the Reedsburg area, but Cazenovia, Oxford, Loganville, Mauston and Baraboo.

Johnson and her husband, Michael, started the open table meals in 2009 as a gathering place for anyone in the community to attend a free meal at St. John Lutheran Church in Reedsburg. While money can be tight for some people, the main idea of the event was for the community to get to know each other, she said.

While the meal was free, donations were welcome and went directly to the monthly meal. When it was decided to discontinue, the remaining funds were divided between the Reedsburg Area Food Pantry and St. John Lutheran Church's Food Pantry. 

Many people would attend, from families to senior citizens. Sometimes meal dates would fall on holidays, like Christmas and Easter, and people would even attend on those days to enjoy a meal, Johnson said.

Johnson continued running the event after her husband died in 2013. The meals would take place every fourth Sunday of the month at the same church until the COVID-19 pandemic put gatherings of any kind on hold to control the spread of the virus and health and safety of the community.

Johnson said she was blessed by the amount of sponsors who contributed towards the meals, which ranged from the Reedsburg Area Ambulance Service to the Reedsburg American Legion Auxiliary and VFW. Individual, families and business sponsors also came from Rock Springs, Loganville and the Wisconsin Dells.

She said an “army” of people would pitch in to volunteer by busing tables, cleaning up and prepping meals.

“This whole event was very blessed and that we had sponsors every year coming forward,” she said.

Johnson said she will miss working with the people from the sponsors to the volunteers who helped make the meals possible and those who regularly attended.

“This community has been such a giving community,” she said.

Reedsburg resident Bunny Elz who assisted at the open table meals with various duties from helping out in the kitchen, cleaning up and assisting older attendees with carrying their dishes, said she enjoyed the 11 years she’s volunteered with the meal program. Her favorite part was making the rounds to talk with the people who attended and seeing the formation of relationships between other people.

It’s those connections with the people from the attendees, sponsors and volunteers, that Elz said she misses the most.

“I just made so many wonderful friends while that meal was going on,” Elz said. “Connections were made and it was wonderful to see and people saw friends they hadn’t seen in a long time. It was just really a fun event for me.”

Elz was impressed with how the event grew over the years and how people from “all walks of life” came together.

“From my perspective, I am very impressed with the fact that Mike and Sue (Johnson) started out with just an idea of a soup kitchen… and how it grew and a dream can happen if you work at it, if God is providing the direction for it and blesses it as it goes along,” she said. “It’s just amazing to me how the program grew and was so blessed to have all those wonderful people coming to us.”

Editor's note: This article was updated July 2 to correct information about how the donated funds from the Open Table meal were used. 

Follow Erica Dynes on Twitter @EDynes_CapNews or contact her at 608-393-5346.

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