ST. ALBANS — With the building where they rent up for sale, the manager of Martha’s Kitchen, Bob Begley, hopes to find a “forever home” for the soup kitchen.
Begley, a member of the Secular Franciscan Order, is looking for a space, either rental or for purchase, with additional square footage, privacy and a downtown location along a bus route.
More space could allow for a second bathroom, bigger kitchen, a nice-sized pantry and a few more tables. Having a spot just off Main Street would provide more privacy for guests, potentially eliminate the public’s issue with smokers standing out front and allow Begley to open the doors of the soup kitchen seven days a week.
“We want to free up our potential,” Begley said.
Begley started working at Martha’s Kitchen in September of 2014 alongside board member and full-time volunteer Cathy Cromack. They stripped the place down: cleaning, organizing and trying to make the best use of the limited space. “And then we never left,” Cromack laughed.
Begley took over managing the books and interacting directly with guests while Cromack used her culinary educational background and made a home for herself in the kitchen.
“For me, it doesn’t matter if you’re feeding the president of the United States, the queen of England or the guy that lives out on the Rail Trail,” Cromack said. “It’s an honor to feed. But you have to do it well.“
Over the last year and a half, Begley and Cromack have strived to do just that: provide healthy, well-balanced meals, increase community involvement, create a social media presence online and welcome community agencies inside their walls to network with their clients.
One of the first changes was to cook meals onsite rather than truck over food from one of the 14 supporting churches and reheat the meals.
Another was to communicate with the public on what the needs of the soup kitchen were. Martha’s Kitchen has an online website, Facebook page and inside the building hangs a white board with a list of the kitchen’s daily needs.
Begley said the white board allows the clients to give back in a way that’s nutritious because in the past, they often supplied desserts and other sweets.
According to Begley, anyone can volunteer as a cook, server, dishwasher, etc. There are no forms to fill out and the only question asked is, “What is your name?”
Begley and Cromack have also allowed agencies in the area, including Northwestern Counseling & Support Services, Turning Point and RiseVT, to meet with the dinner guests and provide support if the clients express interest.
“We want to focus on food and fellowship,” Begley said, “But we can open the doors to allow agencies to meet people where they’re at.”
The pair even created a zero tolerance policy for bullying in order to ensure that everyone felt safe to attend the meals. More seniors walked through the doors after the first year, according to Begley.
He said all these changes did not stem from trying to start anything new, but instead, going back to how Martha’s Kitchen used to be 30 years ago and the sense of community it had.
“What’s missing in this culture right now is family meals,” Begley said. “Everyone is so busy, busy, busy that they don’t have time to sit down and share their story together at the dinner table.”
“But we have that time,” Begley said, looking over at Cromack. “With food, comes comfort.”
“Yes, we see them with all these issues and problems,” he said, referring to his guests. “But at the dinner table, we’re the same… We bring our brokenness with us each day as well. We’re not perfect.”
“It’s like any other relationship that moves into a deeper level,” Cromack said. “It’s enriching in every sense. It causes more worry because you feel such a connection and a bond with the people in your community that you see struggle.”
“But I’m with the people I want to be with, which are those that are down on their luck, lonely, struggling,” she said. “My sense of compassion deepened because you have two choices. You look down and say, ‘Well, never happened to me.’ Or you look and you truly look.”
The number of meals Martha’s Kitchen provides is rising. Last year, the kitchen provided 18,253 meals, according to Begley. This year, not even halfway through, the kitchen is already beyond 9,000 meals.
“Sometimes there is standing room only,” Begley said. The place seats around 30 people at a time.
Cathy said she would like a bigger kitchen so she can teach a class about cooking and nutrition. The pair also speculated that representatives from local agencies might like a space to meet with clients other than the pantry closet.
They would like to be able to host fundraisers. In March, the Empty Bowls event held on their behalf took place in three different businesses in the area due to the lack of sufficient space.
We have so many ideas, Cromack said. “We need the space.”
Martha’s Kitchen has also been having a hard time stationed on Main Street. Since the move almost seven years ago, there has been tension in the community about smokers loitering outside.
Begley was handed the unwanted task of stepping outside every 15 minutes to clear out the smokers.
Cromack said it’s hard on Begley because he’s getting the brunt from both sides: those who don’t want the smokers there and the smokers themselves who feel the system is unfair.
The pair suspects this issue would go away once they moved off of Main Street.
Begley said they are looking for a location downtown that’s bus accessible. They are considering purchasing a property because Martha’s Kitchen has changed locations three times in the past 35 years.
They also want a location where they can be open more often, especially around the holidays. “What a way to start the day, especially over the winter, with that calming smell of food in the background,” Cromack said.
If any suggestions or properties come to mind, feel free to contact Begley at 802-524-9749.