Soup kitchen to serve double role for farmers

The Community Table, Sylva’s nonprofit soup kitchen for the needy, is within weeks of moving its digs from its cramped existing facility to the town’s now-vacant senior center.

The county built a new senior center, freeing up space in the old one, which is owned by the town. The 4,000-square-foot building is located downtown adjacent to the town pool and playground.

The building had to be redone almost from the ground up. A new heating and cooling system costing $20,000 has been installed and all new electric, plumbing and insulation has been added — not to mention the addition of a drop ceiling and new paint and trim.

Volunteers are providing the bulk of the labor. Jackson County farmer and former general contractor John Beckman is heading up this volunteer labor force.

“We’ve gotten an awful lot of free services,” he said of the work.

This job has proven more costly than anticipated, however. It exceeded the original $43,000 estimate and instead now stands at about $68,000, said Amy Grimes, executive director of The Community Table. The county chipped in $35,000, but the soup kitchen was forced to dip into its general operating funds to make up the balance of the bill.

“We really need to replenish that because that’s a little scary,” Grimes said. “But, we ran into all these surprises once we started work here.”

The drop ceiling, for instance, will lower the propane heating costs, which averaged $2,000 a month when housing the senior citizen center.

An $8,000 grant from Ag Options, a nonprofit revenue source supporting local farming efforts, helped pay for the drop ceiling and a commercial dishwasher. The Community Table hopes in turn to be able to allow farmers access to the kitchen, which will be certified by the health department. This would allow farmers, for example, to can some of their extra produce to sell, make jam from berries or sauce from tomatoes. The law requires farmers to do the food preparation in a certified kitchen if they want to sell value-added products.

There is discussion, too, about Sylva’s winter farmers market being housed here instead of at a local church.

Grimes said she also hopes, through the farmers market, the state Cooperative Extension Service and Western Carolina University, to see cooking and nutrition classes being offered to those using The Community Table.

“They are really interested in taking these classes,” she said.

The need for the new space is great. Since the economy soured, the mainly volunteer staff has been dishing out an average of more than 100 meals a night, up from 25 to 40. The current Community Table can only seat 30 people at a time at each of the four dinners served each week. Additionally, a food pantry is operated out of the small building the nonprofit now calls home.

“We’ve been seeing a lot of new people,” Grimes said.

Recent surveys of soup kitchen users revealed that many of those coming have been college educated. This represents a significant change from surveys taken in previous years.

In 2010, The Community Table dished out 10,000 meals and 835 food boxes; last year, the number jumped to 16,741 meals and 2,008 food boxes. The numbers are equally dramatic at the Jackson County Department of Social Services. Since 2008, when the economy tanked, the food and nutrition services program has increased from 1388 cases to 2849, a 105-percent increase.


Empty Bowl

The Community Table will hold its annual Empty Bowl event from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. April 27 at its current location at 227 Bartlett Street in Sylva. Area potters have donated handcrafted bowls that will be filled with choices of soup or chili. Bowls cost $20 each and include dinner, drinks and dessert. There will also be live entertainment by local musicians. The money raised supports the nonprofit.

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