It was a problem quickly resolved. Maj. Beth Stillwell opened the last box of frozen meatballs donated by the Olive Garden restaurant and quickly heated them up.
Alisha Kiefer, the 84th person to arrive, got the last meatball, a few minutes before the dinner ended at 6 p.m.
"It's really good," said Kiefer. "Not bad at all, for free food."
For five evenings at the end of each month, the Salvation Army offers free dinners to anyone who arrives at 701 Good Hope St. No questions, no judgment.
Salvation Army's "Meals with Friends" is a program aimed at everyone in the community, according to Stillwell. She said the program has, for more than a decade, offered end-of-the month help to people with little money.
She said the event is even more important now, when children who normally get one or two meals through school are out for the summer. With the high gas prices, mortgage crisis and unemployment, she said the meals are also an option for families who don't typically use social services programs.
"They may have a high medical or credit card bill," or trouble making mortgage payments, she said. "Nobody knows anyone's problems around the table unless they share it. Some people come because they are lonely and just want to sit around with other people. Some people come straight off the street, from living under one of the bridges. We provide showers before they eat."
The point is, she said, "we don't label people. Anyone can come in off the street who is hungry. We don't ask their names, or their incomes. We just need to know how many we're providing for, and they can come in and enjoy the meal."
Kiefer returned to Cape Girardeau from New York City a few weeks ago. She had to leave her 7-month-old daughter behind "because of a custody dispute," she said.
Though she has family in Southeast Missouri, Kiefer said she doesn't want to rely on them. She knows where to find free meals at area churches, but doesn't always use them. She said this week, however, she expects to be at the Salvation Army every evening. Kiefer is unemployed and hoping to get a job at a local fast-food restaurant.
Betty Anglin, 72, is retired. The Sprigg Street resident said she only comes to the dinners when she can't stretch her $762 monthly Social Security check far enough.
"It's been a Godsend to me, really," she said.
Anglin said she has no phone service and borrowed her son's car to get to Monday's dinner. There are months when she does not take advantage of the dinners.
"I feel it should be for people who really need it," she said.
Stilwell said she hopes that is not always the case. Many of those coming to the dinners are simply looking for company.
At times, members of the River Corridor Task Force or the Family Resource Center join the diners. On some evenings, members of area churches and local companies come to volunteer or offer resources.
Some agencies and businesses use the meal as an opportunity to suggest assistance and guidance on finances, housing and other programs for low-income households.
Lona Ritchie has been a volunteer food server for nearly 10 years. She works with fellow members of LaCroix Church's Monday night small Bible group.
"We serve Monday's dinner, do the dishes and clean up. Then we go out to dinner," she said. "It just feels like we're helping people."
Over the years, she's seen many familiar faces, but lights up when recalling two sisters "with seven or eight kids between them. They were so appreciative and kept saying they were going to get their lives back on track. And they did."
She's seen a range of people, including cash-poor college students.
"Boy, can they eat," she said, laughing and recalling the evening's earlier meatball shortage. "I prayed over those meatballs!"
Stillwell said "Meals with Friends" operates based on donations, which range from volunteer time — cooking, serving or conversing — to paper and plastic products and or food. In addition to Olive Garden, Red Lobster regularly donates leftover food that is still good, but cannot be held over for commercial sale.
"We follow health department guidelines for safe food handling," she said.
Tonight she's planning to serve close to 150 people a dinner of turkey, mashed potatoes, fruit, bread and butter, with cake or pie for dessert.
After Wednesday's meal of shepherd's pie, fruit, bread and butter, diners will be treated to a movie and free popcorn. The free movie, a 2004 made-for-television story of a pioneer woman, "Love's Enduring Promise," features Katherine Heigl in a pre-"Gray's Anatomy" supporting role.
Sloppy joes on bread, with potato chips and fruit will be served Thursday; Friday's menu features turkey salad sandwiches, potato chips and fruit.
The Salvation Army, 701 Good Hope St., will be serving Meals with Friends from 4:30 to 6 p.m. each night through Friday. Call 335-7000 to learn more.
335-6611, extension 127