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Pay-if-you-can meal service faces 'most challenging year yet'

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013 10:54 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013 11:02 a.m. CDT

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DeKALB – Feed’em Soup co-founder Collin Bredeson knows what it is like to go hungry.

“My mom and my stepdad got divorced and we had a tumultuous few months until we got settled,” he recalled.

During those months, he and his mother slept in her car, or on the sofas of friends when they could. They also relied on food kitchens for many of their meals – an experience that Bredeson found to be mostly unpleasant.

“I did not want that when we started this,” Bredeson said.

The experience of Bredeson, who now lives in Florida, played a large part in the creation of the unique “dining room” experience he and his co-founders created when they started to organize Feed’em Soup in a Sycamore apartment in 2010. Since then, the DeKalb nonprofit organization has moved from serving in a church basement to its own location, grown considerably and now serves about 250-300 meals on Wednesday nights.

For two years, Feed’em Soup has served meals twice a month. This month, the group began offering weekly meals. It hopes to offer twice-weekly meals by the end of the year. Meals are offered to everyone in the community regardless of ability to pay. Diners discreetly pay what they can when they can.

“Some people don’t understand the pay-what-you-can model, but a lot of people want to be able to pay what they can when they can,” executive director Derek Gibbs said. “Sometimes it’s only 30 cents, but they are proud that they can give that 30 cents.”

In 2012, the group expanded its volunteer base and upgraded most of its kitchen appliances. Part of the reason it has been able to expand its service is because of a new relationship with Northern Illinois Food Bank, which provides low-cost bulk food to nonprofit organizations fighting hunger.

However, the group will likely face growing pains in 2013. For more than a year, Feed’em Soup has shared the space – and the rent and utility bills – at 122 S. First St. in DeKalb with The Church of DeKalb.

The Church has also grown considerably in that time and may be moving out of the building, shifting all of the First Street location’s rent and utility expenses to Feed’em Soup. The Church plans to buy a vacant church building at the corner of Fifth Street and Fisk Avenue in DeKalb.

“We are trying to do some fundraising and networking to be able to purchase the church. Our hope is to be in there for Easter,” said Jamie Page, lead pastor for The Church in DeKalb. Easter will be on Sunday, March 31 this year.

“2013 will be the most challenging year yet for Feed’em,” Gibbs said.

In response, Feed’em Soup has started offering late-night meals from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.

Like the Wednesday night meals, the “Feed’em – After Dark” meals are mostly prepared and served by a small army of volunteers. However, unlike the “pay what you can, if you can” Wednesday night meals, the late-night meals of sliders and other appetizers are offered at a fixed menu price.

“It’ll be tough, but we’re ready to put in the hard work to keep our doors open and serve our community,” Gibbs said. “We hope our after dark service will help to cover some of that cost.”

Feed’em Soup also has several fundraisers planned to bolster its operations. Its second annual all-you-can-eat pancake dinner will be on Friday, Feb. 15 and an all-you-can-eat spaghetti dinner will be on Friday, April 5.

Chef Alex Smith plans the Wednesday night meals, the fundraisers, and the “Feed’em – After Dark” meals, sometimes up to six months in advance.

“The (menus) we do are partly based on seasonality, and part is affordability and part is what we have on hand,” Smith said.

“Alex cooks as much as he can from scratch and makes meals that people would want to pay for if they were able to,” Gibbs said.

Regardless of what is on the menu, Jack Reisch of DeKalb rarely misses a Wednesday night meal.

“I’m an old senior who walks with a limp,” Reisch said. “I don’t have enough money to get my car repaired so I rely on the bus.”

When asked what his favorite meal was at Feed’em Soup, his answer was both practical and poignant.

“I think my favorite meal is my last meal because it keeps me going,” Reisch said.

Supply drive, chocolate sales benefit Feed'em Soup

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