In a 2016-2017 survey conducted by Kansas State, 44.3 percent of students surveyed reported being food insecure. Riley County also reported high rates of food insecurity at 17.9 percent, 5.6 higher than the national average, in 2018.
“To realize that there are people sitting in classes with you who may not know how to get their next meal is profound,” said Melissa Atchinson, chair of Common Table, a Manhattan meal service nonprofit.
Common Table provides meals to the Manhattan community, no questions asked, to live up to its motto: “Building community one meal at a time.”
In four years of volunteering for Common Table, Atchinson said she has seen the entirely volunteer-run organization grow from simply providing meals to engaging the community they attract.
“[The meals] are a way of sitting with people and not being alone,” Katie Sawtelle, Manhattan resident, said. “It’s a safe place to hang out where everybody has common ground.”
Atchinson echoed Sawtelle’s appreciation for the connections made at Common Table.
“Some people come because they’re food insecure, some people are likely homeless and some folks come regularly because they desire the community,” Atchinson said. “This is a place where they’ll be treated with dignity.”
Volunteers cook and serve dinners every night at a different meal site. The volunteers also provide breakfast a few times a week.
While Common Table meals are served at churches and funded largely by church donations, Atchinson said the organization is not limited by religious labels.
“One of the really lovely things that I think Common Table does is that it’s not just ecumenical, or just about the church,” she said. “There’s also unaffiliated citizens who are like, ‘No, we’re not part of a church, but we want to feed hungry people.’”
Recently, Common Table’s efforts have grown beyond one meal per night. Pawnee Mental Health Services opened a new crisis center last month, and Common Table provides meals to community members utilizing those services.
“[The crisis center] came to us earlier this year and asked if we could give them suppers for 10 people on a daily basis,” Atchinson said.
Some of Common Table’s community volunteers are regulars, but the organization also occasionally attracts helpers from K-State.
William Compton, senior in computer engineering, and Carlitos Hernandez, senior in management, volunteer for Common Table through Air Force ROTC.
“It’s cool that they have one of these dinners every single night,” Compton said. “Giving people a place to come to get a meal and hang out is an awesome thing.”
Both volunteers said they plan on continuing to give their time to Common Table.
“College students probably won’t be here past graduation, but to care enough about this community as one of the places that you live in your life might lead some to want to make a mark,” Atchinson said. “If you can’t volunteer, and you don’t have extra money to donate, just tell other people about it. That’s all I could’ve done as a college student.”
As for the future, Atchinson said dreams for Common Table include food trucks and increased education.
“We really want to be able to transport meals out to a satellite site for folks who can’t make it to certain locations,” she said. “We’d really love to have a food truck for those situations.”
Implementing a culinary education program is another aspiration.
“We’re imagining what a program would look like where people can be trained as chefs or as wait staff and get their skills,” Atchinson said. “From there, they could be able to apply for a job somewhere and become food secure.”
Atchinson said due to funding needs, these dreams could take at least five years to realize, but Common Table continues to grow community with every meal.
“We all just want to feed hungry people, and not just people who are hungry for food, but people who are hungry emotionally and spiritually,” Atchinson said. “I think we’re on the right track because it just keeps building, and that feels great.”
Specific meal times and locations can be found on the Common Table Facebook page.