“I never fed anyone in my life, and I never will,” said a white-bearded man with a ponytail. “What we do is freely share food, and that’s what I’ve done for many years, including in New York when we used to bring food to people on the streets. The police would ask us if we were feeding people and we’d say no, we’re no better than anybody else, we’re just freely sharing what we got.”

There I was, in the middle of a gathering of some 25-30 people, at the Pushkin Gallery in Greenfield’s Main Street, to review the vision of the Stone Soup Café and assess how it’s doing. At first, I joined a group that was honing its skills slicing carrots, with specific chef’s instructions on how to hold a knife, how to make a fist with the other hand holding the carrot to avoid cut-up fingers, how not to bend too much, etc. I failed at this completely and punished myself with coffee and brownies.

We started Stone Soup Café right by the Zen Peacemaker offices on the Montague Farm some 15 years ago. “I want people to eat with dignity,” Bernie said. “I want everyone to eat fresh, hot, well-cooked food regardless of who they are or how much money they make, so that you don’t know if the person sitting next to you is homeless or a millionaire.”

People cooked, farmers brought in fresh organic produce, children romped in the woods under supervision, a doctor came in for consultation, massages took place, and often there was live music. It was the perfect place except for one thing: The Farm was rural, among other farms, and if you didn’t have a car, it was hard to get to. We spent lots of time driving people back and forth from their homes to the Farm.

When we lost the Farm, we didn’t lose the Stone Soup Café. Instead, it moved to Greenfield, which was one of the best things that ever happened to it. It was adopted by All Souls Church, which gave it its basement, a separate entrance, and a small commercial kitchen. When it first opened we’d cook for 30 people, do a circle, introduce ourselves, do grace, and at the end of the meal have council.

Yesterday I heard that the Café cooked 560 meals the day before. Its capacity of feeding 150 people at a time, all sitting around tables with their neighbors, had been reached a long time ago and Kirsten Levitt, its entrepreneurial director and chef, was hustling seats and trying to figure how to feed so many people.

Then covid struck. As one long-time volunteer reported: “We met by Zoom and asked the questions: What should we do? Can we even continue? By the time we ended, we all knew that that second question was the wrong question. In the face of the pandemic, you don’t ask whether you can continue or not, you ask HOW!”

Gone was everyone seated together. Instead, long tables for food prep came out with rows of volunteers cutting and slicing on Fridays and Saturday mornings. At a time when other soup kitchens made sandwiches handed out in paper bags from a distance, Stone Soup made its usual multi-course meals with vegetarian and gluten-free options. Here’s its menu from Saturday, October 15:

Red Lentil Stew

Delicata Squash

Sauteed Greens

Pesto Penne

Lemon Caper Tofu

Lemon Caper Salmon

Double Fudge Brownies

People not just lined up to pick up these meals in bags, drivers arrived one after another in their cars to deliver the food to people who had or wished to stay indoors. Kirsten started a capital campaign to find a new building where everybody could sit together once again (even now, with less covid, they simply can’t fit into the old facility anymore):

“With our kitchen, maybe we could go up to 800 meals,” she said, “but I’d like not to. We have to find more space. We use 40 volunteers every weekend, and that doesn’t include the dozen drivers who line up to pick up food with names and addresses for where to deliver them.”

“How do you explain the surge in numbers?” somebody asked.

“Simple,” she answered instantly. “People put on the heat. The price of heating gas is 30% above what it was this month last year, and winter has barely begun. People are starting to make trade-offs between heat and food. We run a Free Store of food and fresh produce. Before, we’d have maybe 20-30 families coming to pick things up. Last weekend we had 110, all within 75 minutes.”

The need is rising, but what I hear most from people is about the value of and need for community, and how appreciative and appreciated they feel in their many hours of volunteering over the years. A number say that they’re fairly new to the area, and when they arrived, they were told that if they wanted to make friends and get to know the community and be known by it, go to Stone Soup.

And of course, there’s always tribute paid to Bernie and others who first began the Café. But more on that on Friday, the day of his 4th memorial.

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