A man walks into the kitchen with a loud, “Thank you, ladies!” as he hands off his plate to a woman at the sink.
“Did you get enough, Dave?” she asks. “Did you get a doughnut? Do you want dessert? It’s got pears in it.”
“Oh, I got plenty,” he says. “Thank you again. I’ll see you around next Thursday,” as he heads out, looking pleased.
This is an exchange you might expect to hear at Thanksgiving later this month, but maybe not what you’d expect at a weekly soup kitchen.
These free lunches are provided on Thursdays at noon at Trinity Episcopal Church in Rutland, by volunteers from the Bread Loaf Mountain Zen Community in Cornwall.
There’s a lot more to this lunch than what you think of when you hear the phrase “soup kitchen.”
Everything is cooked from scratch at the monastery and brought down to Rutland. It’s roughly a 45-minute drive, which is just another reason attendees are thankful.
“You know, these people are not even from Rutland, most of them, so that's pretty incredible. They're coming from out of their way to come all the way here to be doing something for the community,” said Pete Italia, who comes to the lunches regularly.
More special than how the food is made, though, is how it’s given.
Attendees are invited to come in and seat themselves, where volunteers serve food right at their table.
Serving food like a restaurant is one of the key parts of the program. It gives volunteers the chance to get to know the people they’re helping and vice versa.
“Meeting with people and connecting with people … 90% about it is connection, which I think is the antidote to most of what ails us,” said volunteer Johny “Daigan” Widell. “When I walk down the street in Rutland, I know all these folks — a little bit about what their story is.”
And that’s what the lunches are really about: getting to know each other while eating good food.
“We really look to interact with folks. To spend time not only providing a nutritious delicious meal but having good warm engaging conversation and building a community right here,” said Pat Hunter, a local volunteer.
Attending one of these lunches certainly feels like being part of a community.
There’s cutlery laid out on napkins and salt and pepper at each end of the tables, which are covered with nice fabric tablecloths. The room is alive with chatter, laughter and occasionally even music. Widell started bringing a guitar, a microphone and a rather large amp with him to entertain.
“When you're on the street, boredom is a huge issue, not to mention the weather can be nasty. So it helps, just coming in where you have people you can socialize with and have a cup of coffee,” said Jen Sanford, a volunteer and another Rutland resident.
Volunteers encourage anyone to come by and eat, even if they don’t need to.
“We hope to be pulling in not just those who are food insecure. We have a handful of people who come in just because they like the food, and we're hoping to increase that number of people,” Sanford said.
The menu is different every week, but it always offers the same thing: a balanced meal that often includes side dishes and desserts, plus coffee.
One Thursday was shepherd's pie, vegetables, garlic bread and a dessert made with home-grown pears. The Thursday before that it was chicken enchiladas, pinto beans, avocado and sour cream, apple and cheese, garlic bread and doughnuts.
And it’s all just as good as it sounds.
When the food is served, conversation wanes for just a moment as diners eagerly take the first bite.
“Can’t beat this food! Like we’re in a Mexican restaurant, for Christ's sake,” one man exclaimed.
As it ends, volunteers and diners exchange frequent hugs and handshakes. Diners will thank people they’ve never met before even asking if they helped make it. Even if the answer is no, they’ll thank them again.
“We're trying to make it feel a little more like a home-cooked meal and a little more like going to a restaurant, and less like we're ladling something out. Less like a school cafeteria or prison kind of feel,” said Widell.
The experience looks like a cross between going to a restaurant and having Thanksgiving with family. You can sit and make friends, catch up with acquaintances, and hear a few tall tales about the corrupt city council from an ‘aunt’ that you are pretty sure you never met before. And all the while, ‘waiters’ offer dish after dish and make sure you’ve had enough. Expect for them to sit down and chat with you too, if they get the chance.
The program started roughly 10 months ago after a “street retreat,” a practice where “participants become voluntarily homeless for several days and bear witness to poverty,” according to the Bread Loaf Mountain Zen Community website.
What they discovered during that week was what inspired them to start cooking for the community.
“We found that there was not food for these people every day of the week. The Methodist Church had a once-a-month meal and there was the Dream Center (another place that offers a "free café" on certain days). … We just decided we could add a lunch to the week,” Widell said.
The project was started, and in no time they were already thinking up new ways to help.
“It was actually Chip’s (another volunteer) idea to keep some peanut butter and bread so that we could at least make them a peanut butter and jelly sandwich so somebody who showed up (late) isn't going away hungry.” Widell said.
Now, about a year after their street retreat, some of the regular diners are helping out as well.
“I love it that lots of people who originally just came in to get a meal are now making the coffee and washing dishes, and being part of it,” said Widell. “And I hope that it'll become even more seamless. Like there's no giver and no receiver. It's just all of us are making a meal and eating together.”
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a partnership in which Castleton University student journalists are teaming up with University of Vermont students to provide news stories for local papers. The program is funded by a grant through UVM.