‘Heart work’: Stone Soup Cafe director named Greenfield Recorder’s 40th Citizen of the Year

  • Kirsten Levitt, executive director and chef at Stone Soup Cafe, is seen with a tub of cranberry chutney in the basement kitchen of All Souls Church in Greenfield. After a 20-year teaching career and volunteer work at the Let All Eat Cafe, she took over running what’s now Stone Soup Cafe in 2015. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 12/16/2022 7:00:39 AM
Modified: 12/16/2022 7:00:09 AM

GREENFIELD — Growing up in New York City, Kirsten Levitt looked forward to outings with her father and her sister — a special occurrence that, if her father had saved up enough, meant a special treat at the end of the day.

“It was a big deal,” she said. “He had saved it to the penny. … At least eight out of 10 times, we were walking to wherever we were going, and there would be a street person who would say, ‘Spare some change?’ My sister and I would look at each other because we knew what was about to happen.”

Her father would decline, and instead would invite the person to get lunch with them — in turn, sacrificing the spare change he had saved for the girls to get an ice cream cone. Together, they would share a meal and “really get to know that person.”

“My DNA is programmed by this level of generosity,” Levitt said. “My father always said, ‘You don’t know what that person will actually do with the money, but if you give them some food, you know you’ll help them.’”

This year, Levitt, executive director and chef of Stone Soup Cafe — the pay-what-you-can meal program serving weekly meals from All Souls Church on Main Street — has been named the Greenfield Recorder’s 40th Citizen of the Year. Levitt will be honored at Friday’s Franklin County Chamber of Commerce breakfast.

The Greenfield Recorder selects its Citizen of the Year through nominations submitted by its readers. The newspaper’s editorial board makes the final decision on who will be honored. This year, the Recorder received nominations for 40 people who are heavily involved in the area’s communities.

Among those to nominate Levitt was Greenfield resident Susan Pelis.

“Kirsten and her team work tirelessly to provide warm meals to members of the community every Saturday,” Pelis wrote in her nomination. “Not only do they provide nourishing food, they do so with respect and friendliness, unmatched by other community meal folks. Kirsten offers a little ray of hope to the lives of so many people due to her big heart and her clear, determined vision to make the world a better place right here in Greenfield.”

Deerfield resident Pat Ryan echoed a similar sentiment.

“Community building, it’s what she does,” Ryan wrote. “I can’t think of a more worthy person for this honor, especially in our perilous times of pandemic, inflation and the need for food justice. Levitt is part of the solution.”

Levitt, who was also recently honored by the Communities That Care Coalition with its 2021 Mike Fritz Community Builder Award, said it feels as though she’s being recognized “for being myself.”

“One of my friends sent me their nomination letter and when … I read what they wrote, I just had so much gratitude for not only the way they explained the work I do and the impact it’s had on their life as well as our community, but I was kind of awestruck that a person took time out of their day to highlight and uplift another person in our community,” Levitt said.

She said ever since she received a call from Pioneer Valley Executive Editor Dan Crowley, she’s been reflecting on why she does what she does. In conversations afterward with family and friends, she said, one theme that rose to the top was her ability to create community.

“I called my son and said, ‘I’ve been nominated to be the Citizen of the Year,’” she recalled, sharing with him what others had said about her ability to create community. “He said, ‘Mom, you’ve always created family wherever we’ve been, wherever we’ve lived; you’ve worked hard to ensure you build lasting relationships that created family. That’s really important to you.’ Family is another word for community, and I think he’s onto something.”

In 1999, Levitt moved to Greenfield from Ohio — the closest she’d been to family since leaving New York City — where she spent 20 years teaching throughout the Pioneer Valley.

“The minute I got here I recognized that children were hungry in my classrooms,” she said. “I supplemented food in my classroom for 20 years. Even when I was coaching, I shared things with the teachers I was supporting because I thought it was really important that students got what they needed.”

That same year she arrived in Greenfield, she said, she joined All Souls Church, where she and her son became active members of the congregation. In 2010, Bernie Glassman approached the congregation, looking for a place to hold his “Let All Eat Cafe.”

“We welcomed the Let All Eat Cafe,” she said. “They operated here for a year-and-a-half before Ariel Pliskin came in and said he would take over the cafe ... and create a social entrepreneurial enterprise out of it, making it a pay-what-you-can endeavor. … I came in one Saturday and volunteered, and I was hooked. I loved serving the community.”

Although she had no formal training, Levitt said she had years of experience in catering before joining Pliskin.

“I’m a self-taught cook,” Levitt explained, “and I had been a chef and caterer for all kinds of big events for … 25 years before Ariel even walked in the door.”

In 2015, Levitt took over as the cafe’s executive director. Over the years, what is now Stone Soup Cafe has grown to run book groups, online discussion groups and film festivals. A nearly all-volunteer model has shifted to include part-time employees in addition to volunteers. Most recently, the cafe launched the Culinary Arts Institute, a 12-week program during which students will receive training and practice in the fundamentals of cooking, along with the safe handling and serving of food and beverages. Levitt was also invited by Congressman Jim McGovern to represent the region alongside state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and radio personality Christopher “Monte” Belmonte at the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health in September.

Levitt said she’s watched the need for the cafe explode as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Before, the cafe served roughly 200 meals a week; now, it serves between 500 and 600 meals. Before, she had five employees, whereas now she has 14. The pool of volunteers has grown from 30 to more than 100.

Looking to the future, Levitt said she hopes to find a new place for Stone Soup Cafe to call home as the program continues to expand.

“Yes, I’m the leader, and I’m the ringleader,” she said. “But in the last two-and-a-half years, I’ve been able to build a team of leaders. ... We sit in a leadership circle, and all voices matter. We share the work, we share the weightiness of the work, we share the laughter, the joy of the work.”

In fact, Levitt said if she didn’t love what she did, she wouldn’t do it.

“It’s hard work, but it’s heart work,” she said. “Like the artist who gets up every day to put pencil to paper or paint to canvas or fibers to the loom, this is my art. If it didn’t feel good, I wouldn’t do it.”

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne.


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