When Valarie Casey serves up soup or a casserole at the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank's Fireweed Diner, she also serves up some compliments.
"Oh, you look nice today," she said she tells her customers, or, "that hat looks good on you."
Casey, in a flowered pink apron and tweed newsboy cap, easily chats with everyone that picks up a tray at the kitchen.
The lunch line is full of greetings and "how've you beens?" and "just a minute, honeys," while she dishes out the meals.
"It makes them feel good to know somebody cares," Casey said.
And as a regular volunteer at the food bank's soup kitchen for three years now, she really does care.
"Sometimes this is the only hot meal they get," she said.
On Friday, the soup kitchen on Kalifornsky Beach Road was bustling with regular patrons and others just stopping by to have lunch. People ate and chatted, sitting together at the long tables decorated with wreaths and lights of the season.
Smells of cream of asparagus soup and pork and vegetable stew drifted throughout the small, but warm diner, that seems more like a homey, grandmother's kitchen.
"Great food," said George Smith, of Kasilof, who has been coming to the Fireweed Diner since he moved to the Peninsula in June. "I have friends that come here. It's kind of like a little social setting. It's nice to get around other people."
According to Linda Swarner, the food bank's executive director, the soup kitchen serves 80 to 120 meals every weekday, when it's open between 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.
"We're serving the same numbers of meals in the soup kitchen for the last three to four years," she said, but the numbers of people coming into the food bank to get food boxes has "increased dramatically."
Swarner said the food bank saw 30 new families in October and an additional 40 new families in November. Last month it provided pantry staples to 715 families.
And the average monthly numbers are up for this year with some 730 families per month compared to last year's average of 691. That's 1,770 unduplicated people per month.
The Kenai Peninsula Food Bank is currently undergoing an expansion to help continue to serve the growing population of hungry families on the Kenai. The soup kitchen space is going to double to be able to accommodate 70 people and the building will be getting additional, and much-needed, cold and dry storage space. The expansion is expected to be completed in May.
"We can't order USDA foods that are free to us because we don't have the storage capabilities," Swarner said.
The food bank receives food from the USDA commodity program and distributes it to low-income families monthly.
Other hungry people can come in monthly to fill a grocery sack with reclaimed groceries from local stores like bread, meat and fruit from the food bank's emergency food program.
The emergency food program is for "anyone that needs help in supplementing their food budget," she said. It is not income based like the federal program.
But the soup kitchen is open to anybody and everybody.
"There's no limit in the soup kitchen. You can come everyday," Swarner said.
William and Lydia Bartley of Soldotna do just that.
As disabled and low-income clients of the food bank they like the soup kitchen because, "it makes it easy for us to eat," William said.
"We know they serve a good, healthy, delicious meal," Lydia said. "We're very glad that they're here."
The soup kitchen serves many people like the Bartleys, including disabled ones as well as senior citizens or people with medical problems who can't always cook for themselves.
Casey said she feels a kindred spirit with those customers who have medical problems and she likes to see how their treatments are going.
"I've had cancer too," she said.
In the back of the food bank a warehouse stores foodstuffs and toiletries for the organization's member agencies to distribute throughout the Kenai Peninsula Borough.
"We can always uses cans of fruits and proteins," Swarner said. "Peanut butter is always a hot commodity."
She said the food bank is expecting 200 cases of turkeys that will be distributed by local agencies in holiday food boxes.
"We touch 20 percent of the borough population," she said. "We are a clearinghouse for member agencies throughout the borough."
As the lunch rush continued to trickle in at the Fireweed Diner on Friday, Casey continued to serve up some of her sweetness.
She said she "thoroughly enjoys" volunteering there.
"I need to give back to the community," Casey said. "It gives me something to do that's helping people."
People interested in donating to the food bank can drop off commercially-packaged food to its location on K-Beach Road or can donate online at kpfoodbank.org/donate.htm.
Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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