“Is it Saturday already?”

“Just a minute; I’m looking for my glasses.”

“Oh my, I can’t eat this much. Could someone else use it?”

“I’ll see you next week, God willing.”

These and other exchanges occur every Saturday on nearly 200 front porches in Key West, where volunteers from the Cooking with Love program deliver a hot, healthy meal to elderly and infirm residents who are unable to cook or shop for themselves.

For nearly a quarter-century, Cooking with Love has been a mission of Metropolitan Community Church on Petronia Street, serving (literally) the underserved residents of this community. 

And that’s exactly how it was designed, said Joan Higgs, who remembers how the program began in 1996 or ’97.

“A group of us from here at MCC had been helping with Saturday meals for the homeless at St. Mary’s when Dorothy Sherman ran the food pantry and meal program over there,” Higgs said. “But since there were already programs in place to feed the homeless, we wanted to find the underserved population in our community and provide a nutritionally excellent meal for them at least once a week.”

And they have.

“A lot of our senior citizens can no longer drive to the grocery store, and if they live alone, they don’t feel like cooking for just one person, so Cooking with Love ensures they receive a hot, healthy meal once a week,” Higgs said on a recent Saturday morning while dishing out 200 helpings of pasta, stuffed chicken breasts, mixed vegetables and fresh pineapple.

A team of volunteers spends Saturday morning cooking, serving and delivering more than 200 meals. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly

The completed meals then get packed into insulated bags and organized for volunteer drivers to collect and deliver.

“Our drivers have known some of the people on their routes for more than 10 years,” said Rev. Steve Torrence, pastor of MCC. “They’ll always request the same routes so they can check on ‘their’ people. And their compassion has even saved a few lives when our volunteers knocked and didn’t get an answer. They called the police and found a resident had fallen or become ill. I know a few of them are alive today because someone cared enough to check on them and bring them a meal.”

Higgs, who’s also the church’s director of outreach services, recalls the early days of Cooking with Love, when all the meals were prepared in a single residential oven and stove top. 

A fire in the kitchen led to its replacement with a commercial kitchen in the late ’90s. 

John Eller and Mark Lenkner prepare stuffed chicken breasts on a recent Saturday. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly

Cooking with Love’s first clients came from the former Helpline charity, whose volunteers manned a 24-hour crisis hotline and made daily welfare calls to a list of 21 sick or elderly, shut-in residents.

“When we told Helpline we wanted to find the underserved people in our community, 20 of their 21 daily call recipients jumped at the chance to have a hot meal delivered,” Higgs said. “Then those people all told our volunteers about someone else who couldn’t get out, or whose wife had just died, and he wasn’t eating.”

The list continued to grow for nearly 25 years and had reached 160 meal recipients when the pandemic struck, said Rev. Steve Torrence, pastor of MCC

“Then our numbers swelled to more than 200 during the pandemic,” Higgs said. “We haven’t told anyone no.”

“But,” Torrence said, “we do all this with church money and private donations. We get only a very small amount of food from government subsidies. We also get help and donations from chefs and local restaurant owners who help us plan, cook, package and deliver meals. It’s been an amazing community project over the years and we’re so grateful for our team of volunteer cooks, assemblers and drivers. We couldn’t do any of this without them.”

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Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. She's married to a saintly — and handy — fisherman, and has been stringing words together in Key West since 1998.