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Food forum to talk rising need

It’s an idea that just had to happen: a weekend community meal in Greenfield, with food some of it locally grown — prepared by volunteers — in a setting that includes musical entertainment, a “sharing circle” to let people unload what’s on their minds, and even a “guided relaxation” session for anyone who’s interested.

But the main attraction at Stone Soup Cafe, the nonsectarian lunch that set up at All Souls Church at the beginning of this year, is the food: much of it, like the curried chicken and rice, roasted red pepper and tomato bisque, seasoned pork spare ribs and banana bread pudding prepared by Food Network-featured gourmet chef Izzy Sarto, is a high-quality draw to this “pay-what-you-can” meal.

The cafe will be the main course at a community forum planned for Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. at Greenfield Grill. Panelists at the gathering of community leaders will include Andy Grant, of Just Roots, the nonprofit organization that began providing fresh produce from the Greenfield Community Farm this summer, as well as Franklin County Community Meals Director Amy Clarke, Dan Brunelle of the Salvation Army, Dino Schnelle of the Center for Self-Reliance and Sarto, who has prepared meals at restaurants in Boston, New York, San Diego and elsewhere.

The forum is planned as a community introduction to Stone Soup Cafe, which grew out of a Zen Peacemakers program when that nonprofit organization operated at Montague Farm. When the organization sold the farm, a group of the Buddhist community set up a soup kitchen to operate in Greenfield on weekends — the one time in the week when no community meal was being served in town. Wednesday’s forum will present Stone Soup’s program in the context of the mix of programs that are already being offered, with a discussion of programs already in place.

Stone Soup offers a hot, from-scratch meal with an emphasis on volunteers and cafe visitors from all walks of life sharing a meal and activities together so that, in the words of Zen Peacemakers founder Bernie Glassman, “you don’t know who’s serving, who’s eatin.”

The weekly program also provides “a neighborly environment” with guided meditation to help people relax and experience a “sharing circle” in the Native American tradition to come together in “facing life’s challenges,” said Chris Queen of Wendell, who co-chairs the Stone Soup’s advisory board. With a planned fund drive, the cafe’s organizers hope to eventually offer a Sunday meal as well, Queen said.

By opening up a half an hour or so before the meal begins in winter, other community meals also provide a place for people to enjoy popcorn or coffee to sit around and talk or play cards and socialize, said Clarke.

“There may be people there who have less of a need for food and more of a need for company. That’s fine,” said Clarke. “All of the programs either fill the need for socialization, or provide a warm place to be, in addition to the food.”

Stone Soup, also allows designated time after the meal for organized activities, which Clarke said makes sense for people

“It’s more than just nourishing, hot prepared food,” said Queen. “We also like to create a neighborly environment where there are cultural aspects.” There are even food service internships to help people develop food preparation skills that could enhance their position in the workplace.,he said.

“It’s a great concept,” said John Waite of the Franklin County Community Development Corp., who has suggested organizers of the cafe reach out to other members of the community as it tries to build broad support for this new soup kitchen that would become part of the regional “foodshed” the CDC’s Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center is developing by cutting up and freezing locally grown produce.

And, according to Clarke, “It fills a great need,” since a Franklin County Hunger Task Force has been trying to fill the weekend gap in the meals offered on weekdays by Community Meals, the Salvation Army and St. James Church in Greenfield. Four churches in town had been offering a Saturday lunch during winter months on a rotating basis, but she said, “It was hard for people to keep track of where it would be.”

According to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, 10½ percent of Franklin County is “food insecure,” and the demand for food pantries and community meals has been growing.

Food pantries across western Massachusetts served an additional 2,300 people a month in the first nine months of this year compared with the same period in 2011, according to Andrew Morehouse, the Food Bank’s executive director , and the 33 meal sites in the four western counties served nearly 9,700 more people during that period.

At the same time, the Food Bank received 1.5 million pounds less food from the federal government in the last budget year than it did in the previous year, when stimulus funding had been available, so it’s now planning to spend an additional $220,000 for food and actively seeking more donations or perishable foods.

Every time a new program gets added, Clarke said, it means to figure out how to portion out what’s available from the Food Bank, volunteers and funding.

Stone Soup has been attracting 40, 50, as many as 70 people for its Saturday meals, with a team of a dozen or more volunteers providing support, including after-meal activities for which up to 20 people or so stay, said Queen.

“Because 21st century dress codes are very informal, you can’t necessarily tell who are the low-income guests and who are the volunteers,” Queen said. “It’s just human beings, that’s all.”

You can reach Richie Davis at:
or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

On the Web: www.zenpeacemakers.org

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