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Women's and Children's Free Restaurant serves meals with hospitality, and respect

By Janet Hunter

Dignity, nutrition, education and hospitality are cornerstones for the Women’s and Children’s Free Restaurant, which feeds both body and soul.

Karen Torkelson
Karen Torkelson, chef, with pan of fruits and vegetables.

It serves three meals a week, using real plates and utensils, instead of plastic.  Servers take meals to guests seated at tables as they would in a restaurant. 

After serving meals, servers sit with guests and converse.

Since 1988, it has operated in the basement of St. Paul United Methodist Church, 1620 N. Monroe.  About 70 to 100 come at 4:15 p.m., Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and about 140 to 200 come at 12:30 p.m., Fridays.

After the Friday meals, guests can pick up fresh fruits and vegetables at a fresh food market in an adjacent dining room.  Volunteers accompanying “shoppers” offer cooking tips for foods selected.

In 2004, the Friday Take-Out Program began.  It addresses hunger over weekends when the restaurant and most agencies are closed.  Guests take prepared, packaged, frozen entrees home.

Restaurant manager Karen Orlando, who grew up in Montana, said her mother was widowed when she was pregnant with her ninth child.  They moved to Spokane and had the support of family members.  Most who come to the Women’s and Children’s Free Restaurant lack that support.

“Those of us involved in this organization understand anyone has the potential to be in the predicament of the guests we serve,” said Karen who has a degree in social work and whose 28 years as a mother and housewife gave her skills for this venture.  She draws motivation from the Bible verse, “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.”

Patrons are on a fixed income and find it hard to make ends meet.  Most are single and/or grew up with a single parent.

While the restaurant serves women and children, men help as volunteers.  In addition to Karen, there are two other full-time employees, Marlene Alford, executive director, and Karen Torkelson, the chef;  two part-time staff and 150 volunteers. 

Volunteers come from the community and congregations. Others are former guests.

“One who washes dishes said we helped his family when they came to us in the past.  He now runs the dishwasher for us every week out of his gratitude,” said Karen.

Marlene, who had years of experience catering, envisioned the meal site in its current location because of the economic situation in the neighborhood.  Members of St. Paul’s United Methodist began the program by providing a casserole meal one day a week.

In exchange for use of the basement, the restaurant pays two-thirds of utility expenses.  Last year, the church provided a wheel chair ramp and an accessible restroom.  In addition, Spokane Art School students painted a mural on the dining room wall.

To instill healthy habits among patrons, billboards and pamphlets on nutrition urge incorporating fruit, vegetables, protein and dairy products into every meal.

To promote health, the restaurant invites nurse interns once a week from the Intercollegiate Nursing College.  They do blood pressure and glucose blood tests, and let guests discuss medical questions.

Through the year, there are other programs, such as dental interns, who provide mouth wash and tooth brushing awareness.

Food comes through donations from Second Harvest of the Inland Northwest, Albertson’s, the Davenport Hotel and others.  Food drives and a federal grant also provide funds and food, along with home-grown vegetables from individuals’ gardens.

There are three fund-raising events—a snowshoe race on Super Bowl weekend, the Spring Tea and Lunch in May and “A Little Night Music” in September

The community also comes together for special meals three times a year, serving more than 400 people each—a Christmas/Thanksgiving meal, an Easter meal and a summer barbecue.

For information, call 324-1995 or visit