The tiny Iraqi woman pushes a baby stroller filled with food.
She makes her way to a long table covered in baked goods, where Marie Rustermier is waiting with a package she’s saved just for this moment.
The 96-year-old offers the flatbread up with both hands.
And the tiny woman takes it, putting it in her makeshift shopping cart, kissing Marie’s hands and then both of her cheeks.
“Thank you, Mama,” she says. “Thank you, Mama. Thank you, Mama.”
It’s Thursday afternoon and the weekly FoodNet distribution at Candlewood Church has begun, a crowd gathered in the vestibule since lunchtime, armed with shopping bags and cardboard boxes, wheeled carts and strollers.
Joe Marostica, a 91-year-old volunteer, arrived at 6 a.m., carting loaves of bread, hot dog buns and dinner rolls.
Betty Coy was here at 8 to cover the tables and ready the kitchen.
Marie showed up at 9 with day-old rolls from Raising Canes, joining a group that would grow to more than a dozen volunteers, setting out free food for the hungry — apples and oranges and lemons and potatoes, eggs and milk, giant slices of pizza and deli sandwiches and fried chicken.
But they’re worried they won’t be here when May comes.
“It’s kind of sad, because we serve a lot of people,” says Nancy Weers, one of the Thursday group’s coordinators. “A lot of them walk and don’t have transportation.”
The church wants to use the room that holds their big walk-in cooler and freezer for other purposes, she says.
That’s true, says Pastor Jim Wiebelhaus. The church at 2640 R St. plans to use that space for its expanding children’s ministry, but wants FoodNet to stay.
“It’s a great organization and this is a great location for them. We’re glad they’re here.”
The church has offered to make room in its kitchen’s refrigerator for the nonprofit’s perishables and hope to find an additional refrigerator, too.
But Nancy can’t see the group serving its regulars — 120 or more each week — with less space, and she’s been searching without success for a new home.
So consider this a free want ad for the Thursday FoodNet group. A win-win for a church with an expanding ministry and for an all-volunteer organization that wants to hold onto the giant cooler and walk-in freezer.
They’d like to stay in the neighborhood, Nancy says.
They need a place with first-floor storage.
“Most of my volunteers are in their 70s or 80s, and I have more than one 90-year-old. They can’t do steps.”
They’d be good tenants, even if they can’t pay rent.
FoodNet has a track record. (And a motto: Tummy fill, not Landfill.)
It started small in 1985 with Frank Marsh, Nebraska’s state treasurer, who began picking up food that would otherwise go to waste from places like Kentucky Fried Chicken and Russ’s Markets.
In 2016, the group’s 19 locations were staffed by 449 volunteers. They donated 96,981 hours serving food to 268,941 people.
“Anyone is welcome,” Marie says. “You don’t have to qualify. You don’t have to be poor. If you want food, you can have it.”
Dozens of stores and restaurants offer food and produce soon to expire to FoodNet sites in Lincoln and Crete, Denton, Milford and Seward.
Volunteers pick up the food, they store it and offer it to those in need.
Anything left over when the last guest goes through the line on Thursday will be boxed up for the Milford FoodNet distribution on Friday.
If anything begins to spoil, it heads out to a pig farm near Milford.
They recycle their cardboard, Nancy says. They collect bar codes and turn them into cash. They wash out plastic tubs and turn donated hospital food into individual meals.
They do it out of love. No one draws a paycheck.
At the baked goods table, Maria greets each of her regulars by name as the tables begin to empty.
Harold, how are you?
Judy, good to see you.
Richard, you take care.
Richard nods and smiles. He walks here most weeks from F Street, pulling a big, black suitcase.
He will take care, he says.
“And may the Almighty look upon you kindly.”