October 21, 2021

Loaves and Fishes is more than a meal, it’s a community

Dinner with atmosphere

Photos by Michael McCleary/contributing photographer

Marissa Joyce, a volunteer at Loaves and Fishes, a soup kitchen on Court Street in Cortland.

Kim Hill seemed rushed. It was just after 11 a.m. Thursday, and the director of Loaves and Fishes, a soup kitchen on Court Street in Cortland, grabbed a knife and started slicing chicken.

She had a lot to do before the doors opened at 11:30 a.m.: prepare the pastries; cut the meat; steam the beans. Hill and others started preparing plates, placing a cup of coffee adjacent to a plate packed with food. At just about 11:15 a.m., Hill threw up her hands.

“We’re early,” she yelled.

For 19 years, preparing food for these occasions has become part of her routine. Loaves and Fishes served its first meal in September 1984 and now serves free meals — no questions asked — six days a week. It serves around 20,000 people a year at $3.50 a plate — $70,000 a year — and are funded entirely through donations, Treasurer Mike Shafer said.

Hill first found her way to Loaves and Fishes when she saw an ad in a newspaper looking for a cook, but she said it didn’t say for whom.

She’s a single mom, her kids were in Cortland and she had an associate’s degree in culinary arts from Johnson and Wales College, so she applied, took the job and happened her way into the nonprofit realm.

Kim Hill, the director of Loaves and Fishes, puts knives into the kitchen cabinet.

For every meal, she prepares the kitchen, gathers the food and starts cooking. Volunteers help in the kitchen and at the tables, acting as quasi-servers upon the request of the diners.

Thursday, diners filed into the room one by one and exchanged nods and smiles for a free meal and company. Hill said the organization serves about 50 people a day. Whenthe doors opened, 20 people were already waiting.

“They’re all good people,” Hill said. “It’s nice that they have someplace to go.”

The idea for a soup kitchen first materialized in 1983, when the pastors of Grace Episcopal Church, United Community Church and the First United Methodist Church “began talking about the obvious presence of poverty within the Cortland community,” a history of the organization read.

According to the U.S. Census, around 15.7% of people living in Cortland County in 2017 fall below the poverty line. It’s more in the city of Cortland, 24.4%, nearly twice the national poverty rate of 12.3%.

The organization mimicked a “Loaves and Fishes” program running out of St. John’s Church in Ithaca.

Only one person came to the first meal, but five came the second day and by the end of the second week 35 people came in for free meals daily. Shafer said the organization was never in a financially bad spot, but donations remained tight as the increasingly popular kitchen met the needs of the people who came for free meals.

In 1995, Catherine Stalter, who operated Marian Margaret Ice Cream Corp. in Cortland and Cortland Paper Product, died and in her will, left Loaves and Fishes a $175,000 endowment, as well as donations to three other organizations.

The endowment gives Loaves and Fishes a cushion when they need it. Nearly 25 years later, $140,000 remains.

The rest of the fundraising comes from the involved churches, which provide around 15% to 20% of the yearly budget, individual donations and grants from local foundations help with the upkeep of the building.

One of the organization’s larger fundraisers — providing 15% to 20% of the yearly budget — is its year-long “Meal-a-Month” program, in which donors are asked to send in the amount it would take to have a family dinner. Donations for “Meal-a-Month” range from a few dollars to $100, and most of the time raises around $1,000 each month.

Thursday, people gathered around small tables, laughed and enjoyed the daily product of the year-long fundraiser. There was a table full of clothing for families to sift through and diners and staff exchanged pleasantries — even if there were no seconds.

Raymond Smith eats his lunch.

Raymond Smith eats at Loaves and Fishes a few times a week. When he first came, he was a bit unsettled, but over the years he’s grown into the scene, made friends and come to enjoy the ancillary benefits of his free meal — the conversation, the friendliness, the people. Then, he got thirsty.

“Can I have some juice?” Smith asked.

“You’re not old enough,” one of the volunteers, Gary Cornelius, told Smith, an older man. “Juice is for adults. Not for the children.”

Smith doubled over, laughing. Cornelius placed the juice in front of Smith, who smiled and shook his head. Smith was asked what’s the best part of coming.

“Him,” Smith said, pointing to Cornelius. “The whole atmosphere.”