Hope and a Hot Meal

For more than three decades, volunteers have answered the call to help Salt Lake’s hungry and homeless.

On the first Sunday of October, Jennie Dudley passed a milestone—but it’s very likely she was too busy to notice or celebrate. That October Sunday marked 31 years since Dudley first went to feed the hungry and homeless on the streets of Salt Lake City. She says she’s never cared much for numbers and has never really kept track of how many homeless and/or hungry people have received a meal during the three-plus decades she, and now a force of volunteers, have been operating the weekly Eagle Ranch Ministry Chuck Wagon. “God told me, ‘Go feed my peoples’ soul, mind and body,’” says Dudley, now in her mid-80s, with matter-of-fact conviction. “I’ve worked on ranches or in logging most of my life and so what do you do when you have hungry people on a ranch? You send a chuck wagon. That’s what this is.”

Dudley says she started the effort under the former 400 South bridge near Pioneer Park where she arrived one Sunday morning with what she had: “fry-bread dough and oil, coffee and honey butter,” she says. “The next week I was cooking and a lady pulled up and asked what I was doing and I said the Lord told me to come feed his people. She took my water cooler and brought it back filled with coffee and left a box of doughnut holes. The following week I didn’t have much but when I got to the park, someone had left boxes of food at the curb and a note telling me to use it.”

For most of the past three decades, every Sunday, Dudley’s Eagle Ranch Ministry Chuck Wagon (several trucks and a trailer) arrive and park under the viaduct at 500 South and 600 West in Salt Lake City promptly at 7 a.m. Most times the chuck wagon is met by a handful of volunteers. After a quick, no-nonsense orientation by Dudley or Eagle Ranch Chaplain Eric Burson, volunteers unload boxes of donated supplies, set up tables and camp stoves, and in less than an hour have a functioning field kitchen ready to prepare, cook and serve a hot brunch to the masses—usually several hundred, who’ve begun to gather nearby. Attendees line up to receive a numbered plate and then wait for the number to be called by a volunteer on a PA system.

The menu may vary according to donations, Burson says, but it typically consists of mashed potatoes with country gravy, pancakes and scrambled eggs with bacon and cheese. Some days there may also be coleslaw, salad, cooked or fresh apples and fruit, pastries or bread along with coffee or hot chocolate. “We want to cook a fresh, hot meal every week,” Burson says. “For some people this might be one of the few or only hot meals they get all week long.”
Except for donated bread and pastries, each meal is made from scratch. Some volunteers will clean, cut and boil potatoes, while others crack cases of eggs into buckets to be scrambled, as others chop vegetables or mix pancake batter.

Retired elementary school teacher Maxine Summers has been helping turn out meals with the chuck wagon for nearly 20 years. She is usually behind the huge flattop griddle (she’s named it Big Bertha) armed with a spatula, gradually folding puddles of bubbling eggs and chopped bacon until cooked through and moved to a warming pan. “I found out about this from my son who’d brought some [Boy] Scouts here to help,” Summers says. “I was retired and recently widowed and I thought, if those Scouts can do it, you should get your lazy butt down there and help.”

When the eggs are cooked or before service, Summers might take the PA microphone and sing a hymn. “Most of the people really appreciate what we do,” she says. “It makes me feel good. They will tell me I make the best eggs or say ‘thank you for singing.’ I’m grateful for every day I can come here.”
Burson has been serving as a right hand to Dudley for nearly 10 years. With his football-player build and ubiquitous cowboy hat, he moves from task to task in the kitchen area and keeps an eye out for disruptions. “I knew Jennie from church and at first I was just someone who knew how to drive a trailer and I’d drop it off here and then come pick it up,” he says. “One day I was praying and all I can say is, I got an answer and I knew it was time for me to be here every week and be chaplain at the chuck wagon.”

Burson says he tries to talk with those who come for the free meal and on occasion will give a short reading or lesson from the Bible. “What I really want to do is offer hope to people,” he says. “I don’t think we realize how important it is to have hope.”

The Eagle Ranch Chuck Wagon operates every Sunday and welcomes volunteers. Dress to work outdoors. Arrive by 7 am. and plan to work until service is completed, usually around 1 p.m.

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