BATH, Maine — For 24 years, the Bath Area Soup Kitchen has served hot meals for whoever needs them, three days a week.
Until late this summer and fall, that is, when for six weeks it didn’t.
“It was very upsetting seeing people at the door and then walking away, looking sad and upset,” said Judith Marshall, who lives near the soup kitchen and has eaten meals there for years. “I’d run into a lot of people and everyone was saying ‘When’s it going to open?’”
The problem wasn’t money, though any soup kitchen or food pantry could always use more. There wasn’t a lack of food or people who wanted to help out. And there was never a shortage of hungry people to feed, said Barry Compton, chairman of the Bath Area Food Bank’s board of directors.
Nine weeks ago, the soup kitchen’s manager left abruptly for personal reasons, according to Compton.
“It’s a big job,” said Compton. “There was no assistant manager who could take over. We just closed the doors.”
The organization doubled the amount of food given out at its food bank, but for some that’s no substitute for a hot meal, said Compton.
Six weeks went by. The weather turned colder and Thanksgiving inched closer. If it weren’t for an out-of-work chef who committed a month of his time to running the soup kitchen, it might still be closed. He wouldn’t give his name to the Bangor Daily News because, he said, “This isn’t about me.”
By delegating responsibilities, such as the scheduling of volunteers, he said he has reduced the job from what was a more than 40 hours a week job to more like 30. That will be a key factor as the soup kitchen searches for another manager. The chef said he needs to get back to work and he’s already put off job opportunities because of the commitment he made to the soup kitchen, where everyone is a volunteer.
“I grew up hungry,” he said. “I know what it’s like. When I heard they had to shut down for six weeks, I thought ‘That’s not OK.’ I’m currently unemployed, so I volunteered to take this on.”
Compton and the chef said ideally, the new manager will have a culinary background. As important as the logistics of cooking, serving and cleaning for dozens of people three times a week is making sure the meal is healthy and balanced.
The Bath Area Food Bank, in addition to providing food directly to the public, oversees the soup kitchen in the Elm Street Church basement, as well as a clothing exchange. It is supported by a coalition of 11 local churches, donations and some grants. Compton said one consequence of the six-week closure was that many people apparently don’t know the soup kitchen is open again 11 a.m. to noon Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
The daily average number of diners has dropped from a height of more than 100 to about 40 in the past three weeks.
“The poor don’t buy the newspapers,” said Compton.
He said the board is working on new ideas that will help the organization flourish without overburdening a single person. But the most immediate need is a volunteer manager.
Compton said the organization can purchase food for 19 cents a pound, which extends the organization’s buying power. To support the Bath Area Soup Kitchen, mail donations to P.O. Box 85, Bath 04530. To inquire about volunteering, call Compton at 837-8227.
Benjamin Woodruff of Bath said he eats at the soup kitchen a couple times a month when his food stamps run out.
“It’s good to be able to get something to eat,” he said. “It warms the soul.”