on January 15, 2013 at 6:15 AM, updated December 30, 2013 at 7:08 PM
GREENFIELD – Each Saturday, a miraculous transformation takes place at the All Soul’s Church on Main Street.
Tables with festive centerpieces begin to fill the empty community room; colorful place settings appear. Soon, bright strings of lights hang from the ceiling and the air is filled with mouth-watering smells. Jazzy music and laughter ring out from the kitchen. As noon nears, people come in from the street; whether they wear a volunteer’s name tag or have come for the first time, they’re all there to share a meal together.
“We’ve had days when we’ve been overflowing,” said Aggie Mitchkoski of West Deerfield, a volunteer for the Stone Soup Café who serves as the front-of-the-house shift leader. The pay-as-you-can weekly meal has grown exponentially since its beginnings in this downtown location two years ago, from roughly 25 attendees to the current average of 75 regular patrons.
Ari Pliskin of Greenfield led the effort to start the café two years ago with a group of friends. They’d seen the prototype work at Zen Peacemakers in Montague where Pliskin lived, and sought to expand and centralize it. The goals, explained in the opening circle held before each meal, are simple: to reduce hunger, promote nutrition and build community. What one would typically expect at a community meal is not the norm at the Stone Soup Café: The guests come from all walks of life, and there’s much more on the menu than soup. “We have people who are completely homeless, and also people who have plenty of resources,” said Mitchkoski. “Everyone comes because the food is awesome.” Head chef Kirsten Johl-Levitt is the powerhouse in the kitchen, where she and a constantly-revolving cast of volunteers assemble diverse, nutritious meals for about $100 each week. Soup is just the beginning of the menus that Johl-Levitt plans for the diners. This week, the crew has prepared herbed sweet and savory pork roast, tempeh-and-rice-stuffed peppers, lentil spinach soup, roasted root vegetables and banana cake. “The people who come in are my focus,” said Johl-Levitt as she directs volunteers in the kitchen. “I want them to know this is a warm, safe place where they can become something more than a homeless person or a hungry person. They are somebody.” Donations from all over the region help keep the meal on budget each week: Foster’s supermarket, Greenfield’s town farm Just Roots and local meat farms such as Bostrom and Brookfield have donated products. In addition, Johl-Levitt shops the sales sometimes driving as far as Springfield for ingredients, and storing extra food in her home freezers. “It’s my own particular brand of crazy,” she said. Local musicians play at the Cafe at least once a month, and counseling sessions are offered after lunch. The organization brings volunteers from all over the area, including high school students, interns from Greenfield Community College, and plenty of community members. “This is a great place to bring any skills that you have, and to work with a wonderful group of people,” says Mitchkoski. Tracy Allen of Deerfield agrees – she got involved after she’d met a man who’d slept out in 20-degree weather near her home. “He had nowhere to go. It really stuck with me and I had to find out ‘how do I help?’ Then I found this place.” Mitchkoski said the atmosphere provides more than food to many people. “The smiles on people’s faces, the conversation that takes place - I can’t explain it, but there’s something that happens in the middle of the meal that’s just – joy.” More information can be found at www.stonesoupgreenfield.org or by calling 413-461-8770. Weekly meals are held at 12 p.m. at the All Soul’s Church, 399 Main St.