Everybody is hungry, both for food and human connection.

For decades, local churches have offered free hot meals and the opportunity to connect with others and build friendships — until the coronavirus put a pause on such face-to-face gatherings.

A year and a half later, a handful of local churches with longtime free hot meals programs have managed to survive COVID-19 and are back offering food and fellowship to those who are hungry.

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The noon meal at Calvary Chapel in Inverness began more than 25 years ago when the late Madge and Ormie Benson started feeding people out of their home.

They moved it to the church and drew as many as 120 people on Thursdays for a full meal and around 40 on Tuesdays for soup and sandwiches.

Plus a food pantry, sending people home with boxes and bags of nonperishable food.

“It’s different now,” said Brenda Reid, who has been managing the hot meals and the food pantry programs for many years. “Ormie and Madge and a lot of the original group have passed away, and then we basically stopped for about a year because of COVID.”

Now the church offers a soup kitchen from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Thursday in the church’s “café” building. People can come and be served either soup or a dish of a one-pot meal and dessert.

“We have a woman, Viola Laviera, who has been with us for more than 20 years, maybe longer. She makes our desserts,” Reid said.

Also on Thursdays, from noon to 2 p.m., people can receive a bag of groceries from the food pantry.

“We’ve been getting between 25 and 30 people each week, but I’m handing out cards to reach out to more people to let them know we’re still here,” Reid said.

Calvary Chapel is at 960 S. U.S. 41 in Inverness. Phone: 352-726-1480.

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The folks at Floral City United Methodist Church love to feed people.

Whether it’s chicken and biscuits or a fish fry, they just love cooking and serving the other people in the community.

After a pandemic-imposed hiatus, the church has resumed its tradition of a free community breakfast each Tuesday morning from 7 to 9 a.m. in Hilton Hall, adjacent to the 1884 church at 8478 E. Marvin St., directly across from Floral City Elementary School.

“We started back up on Sept. 13 and we’ve had quite a few people come,” said church secretary Elizabeth Lewis. “Everyone’s welcome, anybody who needs a meal or just wants to stop by.”

The menu is different each week. Sometimes it’s bacon and eggs, sometimes biscuits and sausage gravy, sometimes pancakes. There’s always juice and hot coffee.

“We would like to have more people come,” Lewis said. “We have people who really like to cook, and we never run out of food.”

There’s also a Bible study at 9:30 a.m. after breakfast for anyone who’s interested.

For more information or to volunteer call the church at 352-344-1771.

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God’s Kitchen started at First United Methodist Church in Inverness when it was still located on Pleasant Grove Road.

For more than a decade there, they welcomed people to have lunch with them on Mondays, and at one time even sent their church bus to pick people up from the city parks near the Withlacoochee State Trail, whether they were homeless or simply didn’t drive.

Then in 2014, lightning struck the church and the congregation moved all their services and ministries elsewhere, including God’s Kitchen, which they operated out of another local church.

In those days, they served up to 120 people, averaging about 90 in the winter and 50 to 60 in the summer.

The church built a new church building at 1140 E. Turner Camp Road in Inverness in 2018, equipped with a big kitchen and a gathering space with room for tables — ideal for continuing to feed people in the community.

“We were serving every Monday, getting up to 50 people, and we also had someone give a short devotional message and we had singing,” said Larry Liverman, the church’s facilities manager. “It was sad when COVID shut everything down, but we’ve started doing drive-thru hot meals on Mondays again. For now, it’s working out; at least people are getting a meal.”

From 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., people drive up to the church and tell one of the volunteers out front how many meals they need.

The meals, including dessert and a drink, are served in foam to-go containers.

“Last week we had 53 people, and we’d like more,” Liverman said. “We also take food next door to CASA (abuse shelter) and we’re going to start delivering to shut-ins.

“We’ve got about eight or 10 women who come in and cook,” he said. “A lot of work goes into it, but they love it.”

For more information, call 352-726-2522, ext. 0.

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The name has remained the same, Our Father’s Table, but the location of the Saturday hot meal program in Crystal River has changed over the years.

At one time, three or four Crystal River churches combined their volunteers to cook and to serve, but now it’s down to two: St. Timothy Lutheran Church and St. Anne’s Episcopal Church.

For the past year and a half, the program was shut down altogether because of the pandemic.

Currently, Our Father’s Table is set to begin again at St. Anne Episcopal Church, from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. the second, third, fourth and fifth Saturdays monthly.

The church is at 9870 W. Fort Island Trail, Crystal River,  one mile west of the Plantation on Crystal River.

“We’re all prepared and our cooks and food servers are ready to go as soon as we get updated guidelines from the diocese,” said Linda Axelson, assistant to the rector at St. Anne’s and also the person in charge of the church’s food ministry.

“We have a sizable parish hall, so we can space people out at the tables,” she said.

Prior to the COVID-19 shut down, up to 50 people would come to eat each week.

“About three-fourths of them were homeless, because of our location,” Axelson said. “But it’s not just for homeless people.”

And it’s not just about food, she said. “We hope people will come and make a connection with someone else. ... Our dream for 2022 is to reach out and collaborate with other churches and have more people join with us.

“Our hope is for people to gather again and reconnect and network with each other, bring the community together,” she said.” Because of COVID, people are hungry for connection, yet they’re also fearful of connecting.”

For more information about Our Father’s Table, call 352-795-2176.

Contact Chronicle reporter Nancy Kennedy at 352-564-2927 or nkennedy@chronicleonline.com. Read more of Nancy's stories at tinyurl.com/yxt69grh