After four years of serving a weekly free meal to those in need, no one now doubts that the Open Door Meal Program, conducted by First Christian Church in Paris is meeting a need, organizers of the effort said last week.

The program, which serves a free meal at the church Fellowship Hall every Thursday from 5 p.m. until 6:30 p.m., marked its fourth anniversary in March. In those four years, the program has served 7,000 meals.

“The big question at first was is there a need,” said the Rev. H. C. Varnadore, pastor of First Christian Church. “When we started, we didn’t have many people coming. So, we asked people to invite someone.”

The church opened the program on a six-week trial basis to see if the need was there. Then, after need had been demonstrated, it became permanent.

In its first year, the program fed 1,200 people. In the second, the program fed 1,500 people. Attendance dipped to 1,300 in the third year but surged to 1,800 in the fourth year. Right now, the average each week is in the middle 50s, according to Darwin Cross, who coordinates the program. However, attendance in the fourth year was as high as over 100 and two weeks ago it was in the 80s.

Also, volunteers working in the program have noticed an increase in families taking advantage of a free meal once a week.

In the past, the program has closed for several weeks in the summer when attendance dropped off. That may not happen this year, Cross said.

“This year, I think we’ll stay open because the numbers are up,” he said.

Cross and the Rev. Varnadore said a couple of factors may be driving the increased attendance.

Food prices, which have surged recently, and the overall economy could be one reason.

“The economy contributes to it,” the Rev. Varnadore said. “But, I also think it’s because the program is becoming more well known. A lot of people depend on this meal.”

Although designed to serve those in need, the meals are open to anyone, without charge but some of those attending weekly make a cash donation to the program.

“It’s for the needy,” Cross said. “We don’t ask, so we take them at their word.”

The church obtains most of its food from the Food Bank, Cross said. Sometimes, the church will have to purchase some food and it does accept donations of food. Recently, State Sen. Gary Stubblefield donated 300 pound of beef to the church for the program.

Food from the Food Bank and donations keep the cost of serving meals low, Cross said.

“Our average meal costs less than $1 per person,” Cross said.

Those cooking, serving and cleaning up are all volunteers. There are 37 volunteers on four teams providing manpower. Of those, 28 are members of First Christian Church and the rest come from elsewhere.

Cross said getting volunteers wasn’t difficult.

“Ninety percent of the people who were with us four years ago and still with us,” Cross said.

“We always have people who want to volunteer and we can find a place for them,” The Rev. Varnadore said.

Although not required because the program is run by a church, volunteers have been trained by the Arkansas Department of Health. ADH and the Food Bank regularly inspect the program.

And, the program is about more than just food for those in need, the Rev. Varnadore said.

“From my perspective, it’s not just about physical food but spiritual food, too,” he said. “The amount of love and caring shown around these tables is proof of that.

“It’s amazing the number of people who come who don’t have a church home,” the Rev. Varnadore said. “We’ve become their de facto church home. It’s something like another congregation.”