Editor's note: This column is part of a series addressing the issue of food insecurity in Richland County. The series will continue throughout 2017 and feature interviews with those working to mitigate the problem and the obstacles they encounter.
MANSFIELD -- I've never experienced what it's like to constantly live in a state of hunger.
Sure, I've gone hours without having a meal, but I've always been able to get food -- whether from my fridge, the grocery store or a restaurant.
Some people don't have that luxury.
And I've never known what that's like. To not have quick and easy access to food seems so foreign to me.
Nor have I ever needed to rely on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits or local food pantries to get by. I consider myself very blessed.
Because I'm working on a food insecurity series, I wanted to gain a better understanding of the realities that many food insecure people face by experiencing firsthand what it's like to receive a free meal from a local ministry.
I didn't eat that morning. But that was my choice.
I know, I know... Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. My excuse is that I'm not hungry in the morning (not until 10 a.m. rolls around, anyway) and that I never have enough time to make breakfast (because I value 10 extra minutes of sleep over food).
I'm used to waiting until about noon to eat, so when 12 o'clock rolled around I was ready for lunch.
A crowd had already formed when I got to Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church on West Third Street. Upon reaching the entrance, I noticed one man was shuffling toward a vehicle with a grocery-bag-covered dish.
"Maybe he's getting his food to go?" I thought as I walked into the building, where at least 30 people, about half of whom were senior citizens, were eating at the cafeteria-style tables.
I was nervous. What if somebody recognizes me? What if people find me out -- that I really can afford meals? What if people get the wrong impression -- that I'm "taking advantage" of a helpful service meant for people in need?
I was anticipating some inquisitive looks, and did get a few, some that seemed to say, "What are you doing here?" But nobody gave me the impression I wasn't allowed to be there. Not one person made me feel as though I should leave.
In fact, I sensed a camaraderie among those present. Many seemed to know one another by name and happily welcomed anyone who entered.
I sheepishly approached the food table and was greeted by a man wearing an apron who slid a plate of food toward me.
I grabbed one of the dishes, each featuring the same food -- a turkey, ham and cheese sandwich with baked beans and potato salad -- and decided against dessert (I'm personally not much of a cake fan) and grabbed a cup of orange juice before making my way to one of the tables.
"Where to sit, where to sit?" I thought.
I saw a friendly-looking man seated by himself at one of the tables and decided to sit near him. He looked like he was in his late 60s, maybe early 70s.
A man seated at another table across the way told me, "You're not supposed to take a picture of it, you're supposed to eat it!"
Dang it. I was caught trying to snap a photo of my food.
I awkwardly said, "You're right," and tried one more time to get a decent photo.
I peered over to my neighbor's plate and noticed he had already finished.
"How are you?" I asked him.
He seemed surprised by my question; I don't think he realized I had sat next to him.
"Oh, I'm alright," he said.
I introduced myself and he told me his name is Dale.
He asked if I went to the Greek Orthodox Church and I told him I didn't. He doesn't either, but he had heard about the meals the church provides from a friend.
A self-described military man, he told me, "Social Security only goes so far. You gotta make ends meet somehow."
He went on to tell me about himself and his military career.
We sat there chatting for several minutes. He asked if I was still in school, to which I politely said, "No, but I get asked that a lot."
"If you're ever around again, come say hello," he said before leaving.
I made a friend.
After my buddy Dale departed, I just sat there by myself, watching as other people walked inside. A few children were playing games in the back of the room, laughing and having a good time.
"This is really a great thing that the church offers," I thought to myself.
I was probably there for another 10 minutes before I decided to hit the road. As I was about to leave, I crept back to the kitchen with $5 folded in my hand. I presented it to the man in the apron, but he wouldn't accept it.
"Oh no," he told me.
I tried to interrupt and insist that he take the money, but before I could he said, "You hang onto this and use it to bless someone else."
I was so moved that all I could utter was "thank you."
I probably would have started crying if I had stayed any longer, so I gave him one final "thank you," and left.
Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church's monthly community meal is grounded in the Christian principle: love God and love your neighbor, according to Father Michael Ellis.
"We can't say we love God and not love our neighbor," he said.
Thus, for the past 20-some years, the church has given free lunch one Saturday a month to anyone who wants it.
"If you come, you get food," Ellis said. "You can show up in a Cadillac with a three-piece suit and you'll get fed."
This effort is coordinated and funded by church members.
On average, about 50 to 100 people attend.
"The poor in this community come here, and most of them have to walk because they don't have cars, Ellis said.
"A lot of them are living in ways that they don't want to talk about, collecting money from places they don't want you to know about..."
A portion of attendees show signs of mental illness, or at the very least, some serious social issues, according to Ellis.
"A lot of the people that come here are people that are working through some stuff," Ellis said. "I've seen people come and go, people who maybe just fell on hard times -- they had a job then lost it."
For some, the meal provides an opportunity to socialize.
Whether hungry for fellowship, or hungry for actual food, any and all are welcome.