BELFAST, Maine — The Belfast Soup Kitchen was a cheerful and busy place at lunchtime Thursday, with tables full of people chatting away while they dined on spare ribs, locally sourced vegetables and potato salad.
But more than a nice place to have a meal, the soup kitchen is a lifeline for many in the area, said regulars who were dismayed to learn that the nonprofit organization is facing some financial hardship, including a $23,000 shortfall this fiscal year.
The need for the soup kitchen has exploded lately, according to officials who said the numbers of people served have doubled in the last six months with an average of 60 people per day.
For some of the diners, the soup kitchen is the only place they will get meat all month, they said.
One 68-year-old Belfast resident who didn’t want to share her name said she has been eating at the kitchen every day for the last three weeks.
“I was a product of the economy,” the retired professional said. “My 401(k) tanked four years ago, when I was right at retirement age. Any cushion I had disappeared.”
She spent one winter hungry. But this year, friends encouraged her to attend the kitchen, where she has so far been impressed by what she has found — a place where a person’s belly and soul can both be filled with good things.
Chee Chee Collins of Brooks agreed. She lives alone and appreciates coming to a place where she can be with people who have become her friends.
“I get a great meal and good company,” she said. “They put a lot of time and effort in for people like us. Everybody knows everybody. It’s like family.”
That is one of the goals of Alex Allmayer-Beck, the CEO of the soup kitchen.
“There’s not another soup kitchen on the planet that’s like this,” he said. “There really isn’t. The whole idea behind the soup kitchen is to create a normalizing experience.”
That’s why he and other volunteers changed out the long tables — “Dickensian,” he sniffed — for round tables covered with brightly checkered cloths. They used donated paint to change the walls from dingy to pleasant. And they have instituted a morning coffee hour where patrons can eat baked goods donated by the Belfast Hannaford and socialize together.
“It’s about changing attitudes,” he said. “I’ve seen people here who were totally withdrawn. Now, they’re social butterflies.”
According to Allmayer-Beck, the need for the kitchen has increased because of reductions in funding for programs such as Temporary Aid to Needy Families, Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, and food stamps. Meanwhile, there is less free food — such as milk, cheese, flour and juice — available through the United States Department of Agriculture.
In order to cut costs, the soup kitchen has eliminated one full-time position, stopped purchasing takeout containers and has worked hard to establish relationships with local farmers and gardeners who make food donations that they can write off on their taxes.
But Allmayer-Beck is hoping to step up donations from private individuals.
“We’re failing somewhere in our public relations,” he told Belfast City Councilors at this week’s regular meeting.
He spoke to the council in hopes of spreading the news about the program to a larger audience. Many don’t know, he said, that the soup kitchen also supplies after-school meals to teens attending the Belfast Game Loft, and that literacy volunteers and a public health nurse come in to educate and do screenings for the clientele. He also emphasized the fact that it’s a 24-7 organization.
“If somebody needs food, I want a phone call,” Allmayer-Beck told councilors. “There’s no excuse for anybody around here to be hungry.”
People such as Lisa Brayall of Northport appreciate that.
“They help a lot of people,” she said after finishing her lunch. “If it wasn’t for the soup kitchen, a lot of people would go hungry.”
The Belfast Soup Kitchen is open for coffee and pastries at 10:30 a.m. and for lunch from 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Monday through Friday at the Belfast Center at 9 Field Street in Belfast.
To donate, send checks to P.O. Box 1153 Belfast 04915 or stop in at the kitchen. Call 338-4845 for information.