Spokane Journal of Business

Women & Children’s Free Restaurant surpasses 1M meals a year

Spokane nonprofit sees tenfold jump in demand since pandemic’s onset

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-Dylan Harris
Women & Children’s Free Restaurant executive director Lisa Diffley, left, and executive chef Melissa Berry say they don’t expect demand for free meals to subside any time soon.

Women & Children’s Free Restaurant & Community Kitchen provides about 10 times more meals now than it did prior to the pandemic, and that isn’t expected to change anytime soon.

“Our meal count went up from about 100,000 a year to over a million, and that has sustained since 2020, and it will through this year and probably next year,” says Lisa Diffley, executive director of the 35-year-old Spokane nonprofit.

The organization is a fully licensed restaurant located at 1408 N. Washington that serves free meals to women and children in the community.

The nonprofit previously served people in more of a traditional restaurant setting, but when the pandemic struck and COVID-19 restrictions took effect, it closed its dining area and converted to a curbside pickup model.

Even with restrictions lifted, the free restaurant has stuck with the curbside pickup strategy because there are more people being served than could fit in the dining area, Diffley says.

“It’s a lot of cars, a lot of people, and there’s a lot of need,” she says.

The nonprofit holds curbside distributions twice a week, serving about 200 or 300 households each time, Diffley says. Cars line up down the street and around the block, and even into a vacant parking lot that Diffley says is used for overflow parking.

Fresh groceries also are provided through the free restaurant, Diffley says.

“We received funding from the Washington state Department of Agriculture for last year, this year, and next year to buy fresh protein, produce, and dairy,” Diffley says. “We help them with recipes and teach them how to cook as well.”

Curbside distribution days aside, the organization distributes meals every day, Diffley says, including through the 21 other nonprofits it’s currently partnered with.

“Somebody’s eating a meal from (Women & Children’s Free Restaurant & Community Kitchen) every day,” she says.

The free restaurant provides an average of about 20,000 meals per week now, with that number fluctuating higher during the holiday season. Roughly 10,000 to 12,000 people benefit from the nonprofit’s services each year, Diffley says.

The drastic increase in meals provided was a result of many people losing or leaving their jobs during the pandemic. When schools shut down, many parents had to handle child care on their own and provide more meals for their children.

Diffley estimates that over 20% of the women who came for food during the pandemic never had accessed food resources or services previously.

“They were just without a job or an income at that point,” she says.

Now, economic strains—housing costs, high gas prices, more expensive groceries—have kept the need for free meals and groceries for women as high as it was during the pandemic, Diffley says. The wage gap between men and women also has made it more difficult for women to recover from the pandemic and get by with the increased cost of living, Diffley says.

“We keep thinking that the need will maybe start to regress, but it just hasn’t,” Diffley says. “The recovery time has been very, very slow.”

The free restaurant saw an increase in funding during and since the pandemic, which allowed it to increase its services tenfold, Diffley says.

“I just reached out to everybody who’s ever given us money before, and it was amazing how quickly this community responded,” Diffley says. “For example, STCU I think within two hours handed me a $20,000 check at the front door.”

The nonprofit relies on what Diffley refers to as a substantial grant program, but it also receives food and monetary donations.

In fact, prior to 2020, about 90% of the food provided came from donations. Since then, however, the need for food has greatly surpassed the amount that is donated, so the organization buys some of the food it provides, Diffley says.

The free restaurant also obtains funding from the city and county through fees for its services for providing meals at shelters and other local government-run facilities, Diffley says.

Prior to the pandemic, the nonprofit had an annual budget of about $500,000, Diffley says. This year, it is at $1.2 million, and last year it was at roughly $2 million, she says.

Diffley says the nonprofit has enough funding to get through the year, but that it can always use more, as there are times when it has to turn people away when food supplies are low.

While funding is vital for supporting the free restaurant, Diffley also credits her team for its ability to handle the increase in services, including the organization’s director of nutrition services and executive chef, Melissa Berry.

“She’s a force of nature in the kitchen, and she has to be to provide that many meals,” says Diffley.

Berry, who has worked at the free restaurant since 2015, says there were plenty of growing pains along the way as the organization went from serving 100,000 meals a year to a million, but that the staff and volunteers worked hard day in and day out to make sure people were fed.

“Everybody wanted to be here to serve the community, so we were committed to doing whatever we had to do to make sure that people didn’t go hungry,” Berry says.

Despite the increase in services, the total staff at the free restaurant remained about the same, because turnover was so high throughout the pandemic, Diffley says.

The nonprofit has a team of eight, as well as about 130 volunteers currently, which Diffley says is lower than normal.

The team and volunteers have managed, albeit with some long days and plenty of modifications to processes along the way, says Berry.

“I thrive in stress,” Berry says. “Every week, we would try to do something a little bit better, a little more streamlined.”

Berry says working in a production kitchen of this magnitude is unlike any other culinary role she had previously worked.

“It’s a great place to push your knowledge and constantly have challenges that you can rise to,” Berry says.

Diffley says most of the food that the organization buys comes from local farms, ranches, and dairies, as well as from Peirone Produce Co., of Spokane, and Franz Bakery, which has a presence in Spokane Valley. That ensures that they are serving fresher food to people, she adds.

“We try to make sure it’s nutritious, generous, delicious,” Diffley says.

Diffley has worked at the free restaurant since 2014, and she says she never knew it would grow to where it is now.

“We never thought about food lines,” she says. “We never thought about having to move our services curbside for people.”

Because of the current state of the economy, Diffley says she doesn’t expect the free restaurant’s services to slow down anytime soon.

“I think that a resource like this is going to be needed indefinitely,” Diffley says. “When I started, I thought, ‘Oh, maybe we can make hunger go away.’ We can’t.”

Both Diffley and Berry say the most rewarding part of the work they do is hearing the individual stories of the people they serve and knowing that they are helping to make a difference in those people’s lives.

Diffley plans to bring back the dining area eventually, although it will be used as part of a hybrid model along with the curbside services, she says.

“We miss the dining room aspect of things, but we have to stay current with what the needs are,” she says.

Dylan Harris
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Reporter Dylan Harris has worked at the Journal since 2021. Dylan, who was born and raised in Spokane, enjoys watching sports, cooking, and spending time with his family.

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