Mike Jacobsen has the routine down pat.

Every third Wednesday at about 3:15 p.m., he's the first one to arrive at the cafeteria inside St. Matthew's Catholic Church.

Jacobsen pulls up to the back of the church (just off Concord and South Robert streets in St. Paul) and unloads his car filled to the brim with all the food supplies needed to feed the 100-plus guests that will line up for dinner in less than two hours.

Eighteen pounds of grapes, several large cans of vegetables, nearly 20 pounds of pasta salad, a large container of pre-made ground beef and two large trays of pumpkin bars. And plenty more fixings.

Most third Wednesdays of the month rigatoni is the menu item, but on this night Sloppy Joe's will be the main course (leftovers from a wake the evening before at King of King's Lutheran Church).

Jacobsen sets up the kitchen and checks the assignment list. As each King of King's team member arrives he checks them off and puts them to work.

When the last of 20-some volunteers arrives, Jacobson reviews the meal plans with the group and everybody gets to work.

"We didn't have much growing up, but my parents taught us to be charitable," Jacobsen said as the dozens of children and adults of all ages, some smiling, some visibly sullen (but all hungry) line up for their most important meal of the day.

For some guests this is their only meal of the day, said Dawn Haas, the site coordinator for "Loaves and Fishes," which uses the St. Matthew's cafeteria for the program it runs at eight sites around the metro that aims to feed the hungry.

The St. Matthew's site expects to serve nearly 29,000 meals in 2009. The King of Kings group, which is responsible for one night a month throughout the calendar year, will serve up well more than 1,000.

Jacobson, who has led the King of Kings group as long as it has been involved with Loaves and Fishes, said he's constantly trying to perfect the nutritional balance and taste.

"We've been trying to increase the protein and decrease the starches," he said. "But they always get a dessert."

Same needs, different reasons

"Loaves and Fishes" staff members, who assist the groups that come in to cook throughout the week, said they appreciate the enthusiasm of volunteers like those at King of Kings.

"It's a fairly balanced meal and the guests are always impressed by the quality," Haas said. "That's because the groups of volunteers we have are great cooks."

Some guests like Eugene Jones have frequented the "Loaves and Fishes" program at St. Matthew's for years.

Jones lives in a senior apartment just down the street and said the Sloppy Joe's served up by King of Kings volunteers were a pleasant surprise.

"They're going over well with everyone," he said, surveying the landscape of the 140-plus people eating at tables decorated by a group of crafty King of Kings volunteers with a Thanksgiving theme in mind.

Others like Tim and Laura Langmade and their son Trent, 6, are new guests to "Loaves and Fishes." But they aren't any less thankful.

"This is an inviting place," said Tim Langmade, who owns a small window cleaning business that has been struggling as of late. "The people serving are very kind and it's a very friendly atmosphere for us to bring our son to."

King of Kings volunteer Dave Roseen, who makes it a point to converse with the guests at the Loaves and Fishes dinner, said he's often left surprised and impressed by the character of the people he meets.

"You've got a wide range of people coming in here for a wide range of reasons," said Roseen, who has volunteered for Loaves and Fishes with his wife Jan for several years. "Some really do open up to you; and then you realize that you are taking more away from this experience than you could have ever imagined."

When the last mouth is fed and the dishes are washed, Jacobsen is one of the last to leave the cafeteria. One night a month is not too much for him to handle, he said.

"We are just trying to do our part to keep folks fed," Jacobsen said. "Whether they live on the street or wherever; we're just trying to provide them nutrition they need to keep going."