Demand rises at area soup kitchens

  • From left, Elyssa Maria Serrill, Stephanie Jeffries, Kirsten Levitt and Lysa Morton prepare vegan meals Thursday at the Stone Soup Cafe in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Beet falafel balls are prepared Thursday for the Feastival Meal at the Stone Soup Cafe in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Sam Bolala, a 20-year-old carpenter from Millers Falls, is in charge of distributing hot meals at Our Lady of Peace Church in Turners Falls every week. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Volunteers set up the community grab-and-go meal at Our Lady of Peace Church in Turners Falls. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Mia Laureano, 16, of Turners Falls, donates her time every week to the soup kitchen at Our Lady of Peace Church. She is a culinary student at Franklin County Technical School. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Volunteers prepare for the opening of Athol Salvation Army’s food pantry. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Volunteers prepare for the opening of Athol Salvation Army’s food pantry. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 8/17/2020 4:15:36 PM

Soup kitchens across Franklin County and the North Quabbin are serving more people during the pandemic than they can remember in the past.

Kirsten Levitt, who runs the Stone Soup Cafe, said that since she took over five years ago, she has seen a doubling of how many meals it serves Saturday from noon to 1:30 p.m. at All Souls Church in Greenfield That number has risen even higher during the pandemic.

“In the midst of the pandemic, the numbers at the cafe have risen from 150 or 200 to 350 or 400,” Levitt said.

Until the pandemic hit in mid-March, people from all walks of life would gather inside the basement of the church and share the pay-what-you-can meal together. Some paid more than others, while some weren’t able to pay, but all were served.

Now, Levitt said sometimes 50 or 60 people at a time form a line, which winds around the corner on Main Street, for their weekly hot meal, served in a grab-and-go fashion.

“People can not only pick up a meal, but a bag of food for the week,” she said. “We spend a good amount of time each week preparing both.”

Levitt, like others who run or volunteer at area soup kitchens, said they are seeing people who had never came before.

“This isn’t just affecting people who were already in trouble or struggling,” she said. “People have lost their jobs because of the pandemic. They find themselves in new territory.”

Athol Salvation Army

Athol Salvation Army Maj. Nancy Townsend said though they don’t have a way of keeping statistics like how many more people they are serving during the pandemic — the organization has only one full- and one part-time employee, including herself — she’s pretty sure the number has risen.

Townsend said the Salvation Army on Ridge Street in Athol prepared 100 meals when people could dine together and they were able to go back for seconds. Now, people pick up one meal per person in their families.

“We also provide a food pantry twice a week so that people can feed themselves and their families until the next hot meal,” she said.

Athol Salvation Army distributes the meals on Tuesday afternoons from 4:30 to 5:30, though she said most meals are gone by 5:15.

The pantries are held Tuesdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to noon. Bags and boxes not only include non-perishables, but produce, meat, milk and eggs most of the time.

“It’s like a mini farmers market,” she said.

‘People are struggling’

Communities have been sharing food with the hungry for generations, with many soup kitchens opening and becoming prominent in the 20th century, especially during the Great Depression. They became less-widely used after the end of World War II, but there was a resurgence following cutbacks in welfare in the early 1980s.

There was another resurgence over the past decade or more, following increases in the price of food beginning in 2006. Then, demand grew during the Great Recession, revealing how many people were struggling. The pandemic has exacerbated the issue.

In Greenfield, churches have stepped up to help feed the hungry, including Second Congregational Church on Court Square, Blessed Sacrament on Federal Street and the Episcopal Church of Saints James and Andrew on Federal Street. Others throughout the county and North Quabbin area have done the same.

“People are struggling and we’re here to help, do what we can,” Levitt said.

Amy Connelly runs the soup kitchen out of Our Lady of Peace Church on Seventh Street in Turners Falls. She said that meal is part of the Franklin County Community Meals Program, of which she is employed.

“I’m paid for two-and-a-half hours each week, but I end up putting in about 15 hours because there are so many people in need,” Connelly said. “I’ve been doing this for 37 years. We’ve been at the Knights of Columbus, the former St. Anne’s Church and now here for years.”

Because of the pandemic, the soup kitchen is no longer able to serve a sit-down hot meal each week, so it provides a grab-and-go meal every Monday night.

“Father Stan allows us to use the kitchen and the front lawn,” she said. “We won’t bring back the sit-down meal until there’s a vaccine for COVID-19.”

‘More than a meal’

Like Stone Soup Cafe, the soup kitchen on Seventh Street also distributes bags of food to those who pick up their hot meals.

“Donations keep coming in,” Connelly said. “There are so many people concerned about their neighbors.”

Connelly said when the soup kitchen opened, it was serving maybe 30 people a week. That number rose over the years, but never saw more than about 70 people at most. During the pandemic, that number has risen to about 100 — some weeks a little less, some more. Over the past three weeks, it served 92, 106 and 124, the most ever.

Levitt said she has noticed the same trend. When Stone Soup Cafe opened nine years ago, it was feeding 25 to 30 people a week. That number slowly rose to 10 times that, but when the pandemic hit, it skyrocketed to between 350 and 400 at times during the pandemic.

“Some people don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” she said, “so we’re at least making it so that they know where it’s coming from on Saturdays, and if they grab a bag, the rest of the week.

“This cafe is a place for everyone,” Levitt added. “This is not an ‘us and them’ issue.”

Levitt said the Stone Soup Cafe depends on donations, like the one at Our Lady of Peace Church, and has seen many people step up, but always needs more.

“People are submerged to their eyeballs,” she said. “We want to make sure we have enough for everyone. People can actually support the cafe by eating there because many people who can afford it pay for their meal and more.

“We also provide people with a list of resources to help them get through,” Levitt added. “We’re so much more than a meal. It really does take a village.”

Thankful for volunteers

Connelly said though the Turners Falls soup kitchen is one of the smallest in the county, volunteers continue to rise to the occasion to make sure everyone is fed.

“It has been overwhelming at times, but we keep going,” she said.

Connelly and one other person typically work in the kitchen each Monday, while a group of about eight or nine set up outside. In June, a chef from Montague donated their stimulus check and cooked with her for the five weeks that money helped support.

“Those are the kind of people who help us out, help their fellow residents in need,” Connelly said.

The soup kitchen at Our Lady of Peace Church is open Mondays from 4 to 6 p.m. Food is ready at 4, but Connelly said the stream of recipients is steady from about 4:30 to 5:45.

“People come from work or from picking up their kids, drive up and we meet them at the curb,” she said. “We also have a greeter. We like to make people feel comfortable. We don’t want them to just grab a meal or a bag of food without the opportunity to talk with someone.

“We also hand out diapers. That’s a real necessity for some families and they’re expensive,” she added. “We also give people an extra bag of food, if they need it. One bag won’t feed a family of six. Isn’t that the whole purpose of a soup kitchen?”

Townsend said the Salvation Army in Athol saw a slight drop in people picking up meals over the last week or two, but believes that was because of the heat. She said she fully expects to hand out 100 meals again on Tuesday.

“We’ve delivered leftover meals the last couple of weeks to seniors who can’t get out, so the food isn’t going to waste,” she noted.

Townsend commended all volunteers — hers and others — because they are the backbone of the local soup kitchens. She said volunteers from Athol-Orange Baptist Church help out a lot.

“People are so grateful for these meals, and for the volunteers who are making sure they are getting them,” she said. “This is all about neighbors helping neighbors.”

For a list of community meals and food pantries, visit fccmp.org or look4help.org.

Reach Anita Fritz at 413-772-9591 or afritz@recorder.com.

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