MANNA soup kitchen continues to feed the local hungry in Northampton

By Emily Johnson

On a warm Wednesday night down in the basement of Edwards Church, the MANNA soup kitchen’s headquarters is operating like any other night.  In its 29th year of operation, the organization serves over 12,000 free meals annually to the Northampton area and is a cog within the community.

It started in 1986 at St. John’s Episcopal Church. Bob Saalfrank, the current program director of MANNA, began volunteering cleaning floors and setting up tables. In 1991 he took over as coordinator, and in 2001, he took over the chef duties.

Saalfrank and his crew of volunteers work every Wednesday and Saturday, including Thanksgiving and Christmas. There are 120 meals for each day in the winter, which includes take-out meals, the leftover food that individuals are allowed to leave with. As Saalfrank’s so-called sidekick, Laura Kowal puts in 12 hours a week at the soup kitchen and is now in her fifth year as the prep cook.

The number of volunteers fluctuates each day. The doors open at 5:30 p.m. for coffee and desserts, and at 6 p.m. a meal, like last Wednesday’s BBQ chicken, steak fries, mac and cheese casserole and cream of spinach soup, is served buffet-style with an assortment of breads on six long tables. The doors close at 7 p.m., but some of those who come in to eat will help clean after the meal.

Saalfrank and his volunteers get to know the individuals who come in for meals on a personal level. While serving, they often crack jokes with one another as though it is a family dinner. Ishmael Rolle, a 17-year old student at Northampton High School, volunteers three hours mopping, dishwashing and cleaning walls for community service hours.  He hopes to continue coming back, because he enjoys helping those who are now “familiar faces.”

Saalfrank emphasized that many of those that come in for a meal are not homeless, but cannot afford a grocery bill, and some just come for the social ingredient to the meal. Fifty-six-year-old Paul Chandler said, it is a “different situation for every individual. Everyone has their own story.”

He was homeless for a while before finding out about the soup kitchens in the area. He said the meals are “more for the community than the homeless.”

Most of the food comes from the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. In 2011, Manna began receiving donations from the Big Y of Southampton and the Stop and Shop in Northampton. River Valley Markets also contributes to the augmentation of meals. Because most of the food is delivered last minute, Saalfrank tends to be “creating a meal on the fly.” They take donations at any time.

For their holiday meals, 700 people are served and 200 receive at-home deliveries from volunteers. On Thanksgiving, turkey and ham, supplied by the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, is served. Fitzwilly’s Restaurant of Northampton also donates pork loins for the program’s Christmas dinner.

The program holds an annual fund, which replenishes its $18,000 yearly budget. There are also an assortment of fundraisers including the door-to-door campaign Shelter Sunday and stores like Ten Thousand Villages, part of whose profits go to MANNA on certain occasions.

There is a free meal for hungry individuals in Northampton almost every day.  Besides Edwards Church’s Wednesday dinner and Saturday meal from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., St. John’s Episcopal offers a meal from noon to 1 p.m. on Mondays and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish offers meals on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Emily Johnson can be reached at [email protected]