It is the most basic of human needs: nourishment, for body and soul.
The Westfield Community Kitchen helps meet that need every weekday for dozens of people who come to St. Peter's Episcopal Church to enjoy a hot lunch and the warmth of community.
"There are a lot of people who rely on us," says Sharon Ackendorf, manager and chief cook for the kitchen. "And there are a lot of people who come here to be able to socialize."
From left, Westfield Community Kitchen volunteers Carol Widrig, manager/cook Sharon Ackendorf, Rosa Cettell and Chris Mitchell
The kitchen is open to all who make their way in to the rec room behind St. Peter's sanctuary. There's no means test for being served and no requirements other than to adhere to the kitchen's "no bullying" standard of behavior.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, a young mother with a toddler daughter stopped in for a lunch of ham, sweet potatoes and pineapple chunks before spending a few hours playing in Moore Park. Several kitchen regulars emphasized that they have food at home but come to for the company. Some live alone, while some are disabled and some have trouble cooking for themselves.
The kitchen typically serves 30 to 50 meals a day, or more than 10,000 a year. In addition, bread, rolls and other baked goods along with a big pot of homemade soup are made available prior to the 11:30 a.m. lunch service. The demand for an earlier serving increased dramatically during the harsh winter months, Ackendorf says. She notes that soup is a great way to keep the previous day's leftovers from going to waste.
Kitchen regulars are quick to praise Ackendorf for maintaining a homey atmosphere and for her cooking.
She makes a point of offering holiday-themed meals celebrating everything from Christmas to St. Patrick's Day.
"Miss Sharon does the best with what she has," says Rosa Cettell, a regular volunteer who manages the dining room. "She's good people."
The board of directors that oversees the kitchen is in the midst of trying to give Ackendorf more (hopefully much more) to work with. A fundraising push is on with businesses and individuals that have supported the effort since its doors opened in 1992. The kitchen was founded as a project of St. Peter's, but has long been its own non-profit entity separate from the church.
Other than Ackendorf, the kitchen is run entirely by volunteers. Ackendorf was a volunteer until taking over the job nearly two years ago from Beth Powers, who was at the helm for five years.
The kitchen operates on a budget of about $20,000 a year, most of which comes from private donations and a $2,500 annual grant from the United Way. A limited supply of food donations come regularly from Westfield's 7-Eleven and Tops supermarket, but the kitchen relies heavily on food passed on from Jamestown's St. Susan Center, which runs a similar lunch program.
The kitchen pursues all manner of other grant and foundation funding, but that money is often restricted to paying for equipment and operating costs other than food, according to board chief Julie Jones. Her late mother, Florence Jones, was among the kitchen's founders. Tough economic times in recent years have only reinforced the need for all that the kitchen has to offer.
"We saw our (serving) numbers go up 60 percent last fall," Jones says. "Now that there are plants closing, things are going to get even tighter."
High on the kitchen's wish is a donation of a van that would allow volunteers to reach those who can't make it on their own to St. Peter's, Jones says.
Asked for her top three most-needed food donations, Ackendorf didn't hesitate to respond: Meat, produce and canned goods.
Although the kitchen is a stand-alone entity, the support from St. Peter's and its parishioners has made it possible to keep going even in down times for donations and grants, Jones emphasized. For one, the very modest rental fee for the kitchen hasn't been raised once in 22 years.
For Rev. Virginia Carr of St. Peter's, the kitchen is perfectly in keeping with the church's mission of nurturing a faith community that is of service to the wider world. She encourages people from all walks of life to visit the kitchen.
"Everyone is welcome here. It's not just about feeding the needy," Carr says. "This is a place for us to be in community. This is the common table, the place where anyone and everyone can come together for a sense of shared humanity."