Weekly meal brings many—mostly seniors—together for food and friendship

By Drew Myron

What sounds like a party, tastes delicious and feels like home?

The answer is Community Meals at Mt. Hood Town Hall.

Every Thursday at 11:30 a.m, the basement of the community center fills with friends, neighbors and homestyle meals.

Open to all, Community Meals draws mostly senior citizens, who each pay a few dollars for lunch and the chance to gather with others.

“We like the company, the food, the fellowship,” says Carol DeHart, who is seated among a lively group of laughing women. Every week, the group claims the same table, at the back near the piano player.

“It’s the socialization,” adds Carolee Lyddon.

Community Meals, previously called Mt. Hood Senior Meals, are held at Mt. Hood Town Hall—a picturesque old school turned community center. The building operated as the Upper Valley School from 1914 to 1962. For years, the school stood empty and dilapidated. In 1988, the community came together to form the Mt. Hood Town Hall Association. The group worked to save the structure, replacing floors and windows and remodeling the kitchen, dining room and “nearly everything,” says Roger Nelson, who serves on the association’s board of directors and is a Community Meals volunteer.

Community Meals, a weekly low-cost hot lunch in Mount Hood, draws 20 to 40 diners from around the area who gather to share good food and lively conversation.

The building is owned by Hood River County. The Mt. Hood Town Hall Association is in charge of community center operations.

Volunteers have been dishing up good meals at the town hall since 1996, says Dotty Nelson, who serves as volunteer coordinator. Prior to the 1990s, a patchwork of community groups, including Pioneer Potlatch, helped fill the nutritional needs of area seniors.

Operating on a slim budget, Community Meals is funded by the Area Agency on Aging, Adults and People with Physical Disabilities, and individual donations. Local businesses sometimes donate food. Rosauers, for example, donates bread and baked goods.

Roger Nelson, left, who serves on the Mt. Hood Town Hall Board of Directors and is a Community Meals volunteer, chats with Ozzie Treichel of Parkdale.

“Community Meals are powered by a dedicated crew of volunteers,” says Kristin Reese, Mt. Hood Town Hall manager.

Columbia Area Transit provides free bus rides from Hood River to Community Meals. Riders must reserve a seat by calling 24 hours in advance.

A meal—soup, salad, entree and dessert—is $4 for those 60 and older, and $5 for younger than 60. Take-home meals are also available. No one is turned away.

“It’s down-home cooking,” Dotty says, “things we all like to eat. We use our own recipes or we find them on allrecipes.com and multiply by 50.”

With just two paid positions—cook and dishwasher— volunteers do the work needed to feed 20 to 40 people each week. There are never enough helping hands, says Dotty, who has been a volunteer for 15 years.

Dotty’s husband, Roger, has served on the Mt. Hood Town Hall Board of Directors since 2003 and until a few years ago was “chief dishwasher” volunteer. He has been on the Hood River Electric Cooperative Board of Directors for 18 years.

The Community Meals program takes place at Mt. Hood Town Hall, a historic school turned community center.

Avalon Totten-Denton, a longtime volunteer, notes the weekly meal isn’t just about food.

“This provides an incredible social component,” she says.

“The camaraderie is nice, and the food is good,” says Marjorie Andrews, who lives in Odell.

For Sheri Bonomi, a widow, the weekly outing counters loneliness.

“It’s nice to not be alone,” she says. “We don’t want the TV to be our only company. Here, meal time is happy time.”

Food and friends can offer unexpected connections.

A few months ago, Vern Miller, who lives in Parkdale, attended Community Meals for the first time. From across the room, Shirley Nelson took one look and said, “Hey, I know you!” Turns out the two were neighbors in Odell nearly 30 years ago. With a friendship rekindled, they now share a table each week.

Longtime volunteer Avalon Totten-Denton dishes up fruit to Carol DeHart.

Carolee says she feels a similar sort of comfort. She and her husband, Dale, are dedicated diners, coming every week for the past three years.

“This is like coming home because we had two daughters go to school here,” Carolee says.

“The food is good,” adds Sandy Jones, as she enjoys a meal of ginger pork, steamed vegetables and fresh strawberries. “But it wouldn’t be the same without all these people.”

Weekly Community Meal

  • Hood Town Hall, 6575 Highway 35, Mount Hood
  • Thursdays from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
  • $4 for seniors, $5 for younger than 60.
  • Columbia Area Transit offers free rides from Hood River to Mt. Hood Town Hall. Call 24 hours in advance: (541) 386-4202.
  • To donate or volunteer, contact Dotty Nelson at dotnelson@hoodriverelectric. net or (541) 402-4448.