May 29, 2011

Cost hampers soup kitchens' ability to feed clients

By Scott Monroe smonroe@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

PALMYRA -- They opened lunch at the soup kitchen with prayer.

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In front of a dozen people on Tuesday, pastor Herb Pearl read a Bible verse about loving your neighbor as yourself.

"That is something we really need to look at ... because with love, you can move mountains," Pearl said to the dozen people gathered. "And love is a dead word unless it has action. The action to that love is servitude. Loving God is loving your neighbor."

With that, lunch was served: tuna fish sandwiches, steaming hot corn chowder, peaches and no-bake cookies, along with water, punch and coffee.

Pearl's soup kitchen and food bank has served those in need of food and fellowship for the last 13 years, but it may soon close unless he can pay off a stack of unpaid bills. Pearl blames the tight economic times: He and his wife no longer have enough money to financially support the kitchen, nor does the small roster of members at his Palmyra Baptist Worship Center on Main Street.

"This is the worst we've ever been in 13 years of operation," Pearl said. "An elderly guy told me the other day, 'I hope you don't close because this is the only balanced meal I get.'"

The Palmyra soup kitchen, open Tuesday and Thursday for a noon lunch and Saturdays for dinner at 5, could close its doors mainly because of unpaid utility bills, Pearl said. It serves people in Palmyra and surrounding communities in Somerset County.

The kitchen just sent $1,200 in back payments to Central Maine Power Co. and its liability insurer, but still owes another $1,800 it doesn't have, Pearl said.

CMP has held off on shutting off power, Pearl said, giving the kitchen an extension on its late payments until June.

On top of that, the kitchen faces higher expenses for propane to run its stove, he said.

"We've had a bad winter; everybody's lost their jobs and there's no money," Pearl said. "There's food, but you have to have the resources to prep the food. I do everything I can to handle it on my own, but at this point I can't handle it anymore. I know the economy's bad and people are hurting."

And some could be hurting even worse without the soup kitchen.

On Tuesday, Norma Smith, 46, of Detroit, ate lunch with her 15-year-old son, Justin, who has autism. They come at least once a week, she said.

"If we run low on food, we come here," Smith said. "It'd be bad if it closed. It's a big help to us."

Others hurting, too

Other soup kitchens and pantries in central Maine are feeling the pressure too, with a convergence of greater demand and fewer resources.

The St. Francis Soup Kitchen in Waterville, for instance, is attempting to serve a record number of people even as its food supply runs short and donations decrease, according to kitchen manager John Cyr.

The kitchen, run by Corpus Christi Parish, has seen about a quarter more people than a few years ago, so that more than 300 people are now being served when the kitchen opens on the weekends, Cyr said.

"We're definitely getting more people and they're increasing on a daily basis," Cyr said. "Unfortunately, our donations have been down with everybody tightening up budgets. Volunteers are on the downside, too."

There is help from other sources, such as local businesses and supermarkets offering donated or discounted food, plus food drives from the Post Office and local banks. But taken together with what's needed to keep the kitchen providing meals, "it's not what we need to serve the public," Cyr said.

(Continued on page 2)

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