Volunteers serve meals at the Big Grove Brewery & Taproom in Iowa City during Common Table’s Thanksgiving meal in November 2020. CREDIT SARAH GOETTSCH

Sarah Goettsch describes herself as fortunate.

She and her husband, Doug, are among the co-owners of the Big Grove Brewery & Taproom in Iowa City and the affiliated Solon Brewpub, as well as other restaurant ventures in the Iowa City area. And as an ordained Lutheran pastor, she works at Lutheran Campus Ministry at the University of Iowa and at Gloria dei Lutheran Church in downtown Iowa City.

She’s also had a long-term passion for serving others. In fact, Ms. Goettsch says her home has always been a community gathering spot.

“It’s our home life, it’s our kids’ lives,” she said. “We always have, in normal times, a full backyard and house and that kind of thing.”

So, one day in the fall of 2019, when Ms. Goettsch was having lunch with friends, discussion naturally turned to ideas about how to share their mutual good fortune with the community at large.

“We were just in a real thankful state of mind, a real content state of mind,” she said “We all have our livelihoods tied up with several restaurants, and we were so thankful that they were going well and actually still are – even during COVID, we’ve been really fortunate. But we were wanting to give back to the community in a way that would be a little different, a little unique. In other words, how could we operate out of abundance rather than scarcity?”

Thus was born the idea for what became Common Table, a small volunteer-based group organized by Ms. Goettsch, Emily Smart and Ashley Shewmaker that works with a number of Iowa City-area restaurants to provide meals to those in need. And these aren’t mass-produced cafeteria-style offerings, either – the hosting restaurant for each meal utilizes their own chefs and food preparation team to make the same type of high-quality meals they would serve to their paying customers.

“We rotate through the different (participating) restaurants, and whatever executive chef and team work there take ownership of the meals,” Ms. Goettsch said. “So – and I don’t say this disparagingly – it’s not your traditional institutional food. It’s restaurant food.

“When we were able to actually have people into our restaurants for the first few Common Table meals that we served, it was really interesting to hear from the people who came as guests,” she added. “They said, ‘we don’t get to afford to go into restaurants.’ So it’s fun to have something other than canned green beans and instant potatoes. They kind of recognize the difference. It’s something a little unique for them.”

Common Table meals are served quarterly, in a rotation among several participating restaurants. All labor, materials and food are donated, and the hosting restaurant is responsible for providing most of the needed volunteer workforce for food preparation and delivery.

“Our goal is to do four a year, because a lot of the organizations (that support us), like Sysco and Hy-Vee, they’ve offered to donate X number of dollars’ worth of groceries quarterly, so we try and exist within that,” Ms. Goettsch said. “Our goal is to be no cost, no waste. We don’t want to buy anything, and we don’t want to waste anything. So no one’s paid, and all of the food is donated. We haven’t paid for a thing. And when we were able to host people in-house, we used real dishes, real silverware … It’s a little different now, because we have to have things in to-go containers. But we don’t waste any of the meals.”

The first Common Table meal, served at the Big Grove Brewery and Taproom in Iowa City just before Thanksgiving 2019, proved to be a valuable learning experience in many ways, Ms. Goettsch said – not all having to do with the food itself.

“We got to welcome people in before the meal, with coffee and a warm spot to sit,” she said. “It was so cold that day. I liked going around to the different tables and welcoming people. Two gentlemen told me that they were familiar with Big Grove, and I said, ‘Oh, you’ve been here before?’ And they said, ‘Well, we sleep on your patio every night. We’ve never been inside, but we sleep right there,’ and they pointed out the window. So that was really interesting.”

The meal was also illuminating for Ms. Goettsch’s teenage son.

“There was a family sitting at a table, and I sat down and was visiting with them,” she said. “My sons were volunteering that day, and my oldest walked by, and one of the teenage girls at the table said, ‘Hey, Christian,’ and he turned around and he’s like, ‘Hey.’ They were in the same Spanish class. And when we were driving home, he said, ‘I didn’t know I knew any homeless people.’ And I said, ‘Well, you do know a lot, you just don’t know it.’ That particular family was living at the Shelter House at the time.

“It also takes away the stigma that we think that homeless people are all sitting on the corner with a coffee mug, begging,” she continued. “She went to school with him, was in activities with him, and he just didn’t know her family situation. He pulled up a chair, and they sat there and talked for about half an hour. I think that was a real changing point for him.”

Common Table works in cooperation with other community-based meals programs, such as Shelter House, the Domestic Violence Intervention Program (DVIP), IC Compassion and the North Liberty Food Pantry. When those groups need a break, Common Table steps in, avoiding duplication of meal services. The group also tries to spread the word about meals via flyers on the Iowa City Pedestrian Mall and at local social service agencies, and word of mouth has generated even more awareness.

But is Common Table reaching anyone new, anyone not already being served by other social service agencies? Ms. Goettsch said she hopes so.

“It’s kind of hard to know,” she said. “That would be the hope, I think, ideally, would be to feed people that aren’t automatically plugged into existing meals. But that would be something that I’d love to learn more about.”

Community service is clearly at the heart of Common Table’s mission, but as a pastor, Ms. Goettsch said she’s also keenly aware of the spiritual overtones.

“There are many, many connections, some clearly theological, that feeding people’s belly is akin to feeding people’s souls,” she said. “That’s a Christian tenet, but not exclusively Christian. I think about all the stories in the Gospel where Jesus sits and eats with people before he talks to them about their souls. I think there’s something there. No one gives a damn about talking about their souls when they’re starving. So I think He provides this really great model of meeting people’s physical needs first, and then talk spirituality later. That stuff will come. But that model has always been very primary for me.”

As long as the need exists, Ms. Goettsch said she hopes Common Table will be able to continue helping to fill it.

“We have a wealthy community, we really do,” she said. “But the past few years have seen an increased need, and clearly, since COVID, the numbers of people who are hungry and homeless are just spiking. I think any business that’s operating even remotely out of some affluence has a responsibility to give back to the community. We in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids just have big hearts and people that want to help.”

For more information, check out Common Table on Facebook (www.facebook.com/CommonTableIowa) or Instagram (@commontable.ia), or email Ms. Goettsch at sarahgoettsch5@gmail.com. CBJ