Hot meals, kind words; businesses who keep the food coming

Cornucopia, Butera’s, 7-Eleven, Starbucks help soup kitchen

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The beautiful white church with distinctive undulating shingles on Middle Road hoists a dual mantle of spiritual solace and social action that urged forming its soup kitchen in 1994. Sayville Congregational United Church of Christ members noticed some local people were going hungry, so volunteers organized and Fellowship Hall opened for meals.

Kind greetings like “Hi hon, how are you today?” can be heard at dinner four nights a week here, although meals are now provided as takeout treasures: roast beef, mashed potatoes and green beans, breaded pork chops or spareribs with vegetables, hot dogs, jambalaya, or some other nutritious meal of the day.

While Sharing A Meal Sayville Soup Kitchen has a roster of contributors, some recent businesses have pitched in, said Jo-Ann Rowland, president of Sharing A Meal Sayville Soup Kitchen, a 501(c)3. Cornucopia Natural Foods in Sayville, for example, has begun providing organic food products. “Vicki Hansson calls me from Cornucopia about extra produce and we just got a case of whole chickens,” Rowland said of the popular store’s contribution. (Hansson said Cornucopia also provides food to the Greater Sayville Food Pantry.)

Butera’s, the popular family-style Italian restaurant across the street, has agreed to prepare one meal a week; trays of food will be carried over.

Butera’s manager Jerry Marlow slid over one of their menus for the soup kitchen: a full tray of mixed salad, penne a la vodka, and eggplant parmesan; another offered salad and chicken francese. “We walk it over,” Marlow said. “We know times are tough. We made it through COVID with a modicum of success and we’re grateful for it. So we want to give back.”

“The 7-Eleven in Sayville on Montauk Highway gives us pizzas,” said Gini McLaughlin, Sharing A Meal’s fundraising secretary. 

“Also, Starbucks has been donating,” added Rowland. “They’re contributing breakfast sandwiches, wraps and lunch-type sandwiches. We have to pick the food up in Bohemia.”

Cricket’s had been a big partner before it closed last year, she said of owner Peter Moreno’s largesse.

Usually about 50 guests show up a night, Monday through Thursday. “We’ve done 21,800 meals since the pandemic,” said Rowland.

“The guests know the nights when their favorites will be offered,” she said with a little chuckle. 

When the cooks change, there can be a bit of consternation from guests expecting, say, their yummy baked mac and cheese, but a new dish they aren’t used to usually becomes a happy palate surprise. Tasty sandwiches, soups and salty snacks, packed up and ready to go, water and hot cocoa, are also part of the menu.

How much does a night’s dinner cost?

“The cooks tell me $225 to $250 covers food for everyone for one night,” she said. “Sometimes the cooks buy food themselves and/or donate meat and supplement the meals. And this year there’s been an amazing amount of people offering to make dessert or soup.”

The food is served by 12 teams of volunteers and 15 cooks spaced over the four nights, all vaccinated and masked. COVID scuttled inside dining since 2020, although with warmer weather coming, there are other possibilities like tables being set up outside.

The soup kitchen’s duties are a big responsibility and involve marshaling and scheduling volunteers, organizing food pickup, logistics, stocking nonperishables and perishables. There’s a lot of follow-up and follow-through.

“When we started in 1994, we were part of the Interfaith Nutrition Network, Having Friends INN,” explained Jerry Avolio, Sharing A Meal’s fundraising director. “We operated under a tax I.D. and were connected, but autonomous. In 2017, INN had gotten so big, they came to us with a choice: we either had to be under their umbrella, or go out on our own. So that’s what we did.”

Monetary support, he said, comes from area churches, the local community and businesses, volunteers, and individuals from different towns. The Sayville Rotary Club recently presented them with a check for $250.

“I also collaborate with Jonathon Pryer from Sayville Library on fundraising events,” said Rowland. They include Girl Scout and Sayville High School efforts. “New Life Community Church also helps out,” Rowland said. “And Long Island Cares has helped us out for years.”

The soup kitchen offerings began on Tuesday nights. “Then there was a team approach so we wouldn’t burn out,” Rowland said. “Sayville Methodist came on board, St. Lawrence R.C. Church asked for two nights, and other churches participated, including St. John’s Lutheran and St. John Nepomucene.  Then we expanded service to four nights a week.”

There are six volunteers each night, cooking, packing up the food, and handing out the food bundles. The steaming food is a warm hug for the stomachs, and a caring humaneness permeates interactions with the guests.

Gini McLaughlin emphasized that there is a “no questions asked” policy.

Sometimes it’s a “Hello, glad to see you,” or a pat on the back. New people who show up are welcome, and sometimes there are regulars who need extra help. Rowland just worked with another church to provide Meals on Wheels for a frequent guest who had been hospitalized and couldn’t get to the Sayville location.

“I make it my business to talk to the guests,” Rowland said. “If they want to talk, I’ll listen. They come for many reasons. The saddest thing is when they were fired, lost their job or housing. That’s why the guest attendance is still up.” 

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