The numbers regarding use of food pantries and soup kitchens by Massachusetts residents in recent years is staggering, and one important local soup kitchen is running out of funds so rapidly it may not have enough to operate a year from now.
A “Map the Meal Gap’’ study released recently by Feeding America, the national consortium of food banks, showed two alarming trends.
The study pointed out that it will take 88.7 million more meals to provide three square meals a day to everyone in need in Massachusetts. Data also showed that nearly half of those who go hungry earn too much money to qualify for governmental nutrition assistance under current standards, and are forced to rely on charity.
Nearly half of Massachusetts residents who responded to the study said they lacked enough food to meet basic family needs fully, because they have income 200 percent above the federal poverty line for a family of four.
In 2009, nearly one out of every 10 state residents relied on a food pantry, soup kitchen, or shelter, up 23 percent over four years before, according to another survey conducted in 2010 by Feeding America, a network of 200 food banks around the country.
In the Middlesex East readership area, many families in need are served by The Dwelling Place, a community soup kitchen located at the United Methodist Church on Main Street in Woburn center. It offers hot dinners on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, year round, to all who come - some for the free food, some for the fellowship, and some for both. All are welcome, and no questions are asked about financial circumstances. It is the only soup kitchen serving Woburn, Winchester, Burlington, and Wilmington.
According to Reverend Leslie Hastings, Assistant Pastor of the Wilmington United Methodist Church in Wilmington, The Dwelling Place got its start 23 years ago.
“The seeds were planted in 1987 at an ecumenical Lenten meeting at St. Charles Borromeo Church in Woburn center,” said Rev. Hastings. “The pastor had invited a group to view a film on world hunger, and it spawned a discussion about what could be done locally to help people in need. Meetings were held over the summer to determine what would work best, and the group settled on a soup kitchen. The planners accepted the offer of the United Methodist Church of Woburn to house the program.
“Initially, at least, clergy and laity from all four Catholic parishes, the mainline Protestant churches, and the Greek Orthodox Church took part,” continued Hastings. “The unexpected benefit was a great sense of mutual acceptance and cooperation within the town's churches. Nikki Kouletsis from the Greek Orthodox Church stepped in very early to plan menus and coordinate volunteers. Her daughter, Dene, still represents that church and is currently the chairperson of The Dwelling Place Board of Directors.”
A set schedule for distribution of meals to needy individuals was quickly established.
“Meals were scheduled at first for two nights a week,” said Hastings. “On the very first night, no one showed up to eat. Rev. Bill Flug, the pastor of the United Methodist Church, and I walked through the downtown area and invited folks from the streets and alleys. Over the next few months, word quickly spread and we were regularly serving up to 15 people each time. At times over the years, that number has swelled to nearly 60 people.”
A year after its inception, the Dwelling Place began to serve three nights a week, and has continued to do so to this day, totalling well over 70,000 meals prepared and, Hastings estimates, another 20-30,000 taken home.
“One of the other important people from early on was John Stannard of the United Methodist Church,” said Hastings. “He was there from the very early days, and eventually supervised all three nights a week for many years, right up until the day of his death in late 2010.”
Hastings was involved from the very beginning.
“I was part of the planning group and very active until 2005, when I became assistant pastor of the Wilmington United Methodist Church. Since John's death, I have become the supervisor on two Monday nights a month.”
Hastings said that on most nights, less than 10 volunteers manage to help so many families throughout the Middlesex East readership area.
“On a typical evening, 4-7 people work setting the tables, cooking the food, serving, and cleaning up,” said Hastings. “Each volunteer group does one night a month.”
Groups currently involved in volunteering at The Dwelling Place include First Congregational Church and Crawford Memorial United Methodist Church (Winchester), Hope Christian Church and Burlington Presbyterian Church (Burlington), Wilmington United Methodist Church (Wilmington), North Congregational Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, St. Charles Church, the United Methodist Church (Woburn), the Social Capital Youth Initiative (Woburn), one business group, a Hindu group, occasional scout groups, and one family.
“Individuals are welcome to participate, too, and are sometimes paired with the smaller churches,” said Hastings.
Hastings said she has seen the demand for help from places like The Dwelling Place increase since the recession hit.
“We are currently averaging about 20-25 guests per evening,” said Hastings. “We have often tried to analyze the patterns, but we can't even say with certainty that more come at the end of the month, as one would expect.
“Most of those currently coming are individuals rather than families, but this has varied over the years, too. Some come for the free food, some come for the fellowship, and some come for both. While some are homeless, most have places to live, however inadequate, and some have cars. Many struggle with multiple issues of disability, emotional or mental health, past substance abuse, poor education, and so forth.
“They come from many different communities, but we do not keep records on that.”
Hastings has met many people from many walks of life over her years at The Dwelling Place, but a few stand out in her mind.
“One memory I have from the early years is a dad telling me that the milk I was pouring for his children was the first they had that week,” said Hastings. “It's sad to think that parents have to worry about milk for their kids in this country.
“Another is of two young, single moms becoming friends at The Dwelling Place, and sharing babysitting back and forth, to give each other a break.”
While food donations are always accepted, Hastings said what The Dwelling Place desperately needs now is money.
“Monetary donations are what are critical at this point in our history,” said Hastings. “The Dwelling Place pays a monthly amount to the host church, to compensate for heat, light, cooking gas, cleaning, and general maintenance. In addition, we must purchase paper goods, coffee, and various other items. We currently have enough in our account to last about a year. Some churches that are too small to volunteer to serve one night a month do contribute some each year. Fundraising needs to be ongoing. The groups that serve provide all of the food.”
For anyone wishing to help out The Dwelling Place, donations may be made to:
The Dwelling Place
c/o the United Methodist Church
523 Main St.
Woburn, MA 01801
“Other than money, we can always use coffee,” said Hastings.