Stone Soup Cafe Executive Chef and Co-Director Kirsten Levitt discusses how the nonprofit navigated the pandemic, its new Culinary Institute and plans for the future.
Episode also includes a Municipal Minute on serving cherry sheets.
MAYOR: Well, hello everyone and welcome to the Mayor's Roundtable. Today, we have Kirsten Levitt of Stone Soup Cafe--- and let me correct that: Franklin County Citizen of the Year Kirsten Levitt of Stone Soup Cafe, which is just a wonderful group of people led by Kirsten, peopled by many, many volunteers-- and growing staff members too, I think if, I'm not mistaken, so that's a good thing since I think she and a handful of volunteers used to run nearly the whole thing all the time.
So what I'm going to do is start off by asking you Kirsten to, I can't imagine that there's anybody out there that doesn't know about Stone Soup, but just on the outside chance that there is, please tell us a little bit of the history of Stone Soup Cafe not maybe going on back to the year one and why you exist.
KIRSTEN LEVITT: Sure. Thanks so much for having me today Roxann.
Stone Soup Cafe is a pay-what-you-can cafe that invites every member of the community to participate in its meal on Saturdays and we serve from noon until 1:30. The reason the cafe exists is because in Franklin County there was zero availability for already-made meals on the weekend.
So back in 2010, the meals started in Montague, but moved here in late 2011 and has been existing in the basement of All Souls Church, since then. I joined in 2011 and worked with Ariel Pliskin for a number of years as, we led the charge and people started really coming in who needed food, but also you know, this is a social entrepreneurial organization in that there's no "us" and "them." We're inviting every member of our community to come in and sit and have a delicious meal. I know you have done that.
MAYOR: Oh, yeah. And participate in making sure they got out there on the table too.
KIRSTEN LEVITT: Yeah. You've been there chop, chopping. So before their pandemic, we, we sat down, we celebrated a theme every single week. We decorated the table.
MAYOR: I loved those days, I have to say. We want to bring 'em back.
KIRSTEN LEVITT: And we had a buffet line and people could choose which of the entree portions they wanted. We had live music. We had all kinds of amazing things and then the pandemic hit.
And one of the first things that I did right before the shutdown was I texted you and said, "What's gonna happen? Am I going to get stopped at five in the morning when I'm driving in to make the food? I don't understand. Is Stone Soup Cafe an essential service?" And you said "absolutely!" And Roxann, I'm here to tell you you were so right. So finger on the pulse of the community and looking forward because we served a hundred people, a hundred twenty people, maybe 150 meals maybe on a busy busy day 200. We serve between five and six hundred meals every single week now, and we steadily grew throughout the pandemic and in reality the cafe, this last fiscal year has been even more important than maybe even the first year of the pandemic because, out of the pandemic grew up a community-free store.
MAYOR: Yes, I was going to mention that.
KIRSTEN LEVITT: And last January, we were awarded a grant that started the Culinary Institute. And we because of the pandemic found really creative ways to connect with community. So we do book groups and Zoom meetings and we kind of have a jam session on Hope Street in the good weather. We have bands out there and seated picnic tables because unfortunately we can't sit in the dining room anymore. It's full of equipment because that's what the pandemic did when it exploded our numbers. But this past fiscal year, people felt the pinch worse than ever. Supply chains broke down even worse than at the beginning of the pandemic. Inflation and gas and rising housing costs just forced our community to really make use of resources like the pantry and the meal program.
You know, we're here to serve our community, to be a part of our community, and to create an "us" because there's only us. You know that right? There's no "us" and "them." There's just us humans. And we all have basic needs. And one of those basic needs and rights is really good healthy, nutritious food.
MAYOR: That's true. And on that. Well, first of all, I love that philosophy of "just us," because it is true. Despite certainly the tenor of the times, it seems to always want to create "them" too. So but setting that aside, the healthy, nutritious part just to get the audience's mouth watering, tell me a little bit, because I know that's a very important piece to you, is to make sure that there's exciting and interesting meals, that there are vegans can eat there, as well as plain old some days sometimes carnivores.
KIRSTEN LEVITT: Well, there's always some kind of animal protein option. So I think the most exciting thing about the cafe is that regardless of the pandemic, we chose to continue the weekly celebration. So any given time, you could have food from almost anywhere in the world. So a couple of weeks ago, we had Chinese New Year, you know, we made Chinese food for 600. And traditional New Year food: We didn't make dumpling but we made long noodle. We made chicken because that's this year the year of rabbit.
MAYOR: How did chicken and rabbit get to be?
KIRSTEN LEVITT: I don't know. Maybe there's some joke there that I don't know about which came first rabbit or the chicken. Well, or it tastes just like chicken. I'm not sure, but, but that was the recommendation every year. I I do a lot of cultural research. So we we cook African food and Spanish food and yeah Italian food all kinds of American fare from all over the regions and in the United States. You know, and French food, we just cover it. And and we use the celebration as the vehicle. So I always like to say I'm expanding people's palettes and I'm exposing them to food and flavors that they may never have had before or I'm exciting their memory banks and rebuilding nostalgia. You know Stone Soup Cafe is not a soup kitchen.
MAYOR: That's right. And I'm glad you made that point.
KIRSTEN LEVITT: And right and although we're a 501-C-3. We're we're kind of a different charity model. We really rely on mutual aid. We're looking for people's volunteerism and sharing of their talents and backgrounds to help us run the organization. And you mentioned we we do have growing staff now that we have three major programs. At the beginning of the pandemic there were five of us on staff and I was the only full-timer and now there are 15 of us on staff.
MAYOR: Grew more than I was thinking.
KIRSTEN LEVITT: The culinary instructors are full-time when the cohorts are happening, which that's going to start very soon. We're starting on February 14th our second cohort. And then I have a lot of part-time staff that are very dedicated. We also do catering. Shameless plug, sorry. So we try to make sure that our part-time staff gets additional employment opportunity when we have catering going on. Food is vastly important and I grew up in New York City with a gourmand for a father and an amazing baker for a mother and we went to every kind of restaurant you could think of and unfortunately, I hate to admit that, in my youth, you know, when you're six, I don't think you want to eat raw eel.
MAYOR Mm-hmm. Yeah.
KIRSTEN LEVITT: It's just yucky, but I wish I could transport myself back to those those days that first decade and a half that I was in all kinds of different places so that I could be much more, I don't know, tenacious with my exploring of flavors. But I got a lot of it and my dad was one of those people who could go to a restaurant and taste something and go home and cook it and I got that.
MAYOR: I like to do that too.
KIRSTEN LEVITT: I know you do. You're a really good cook.
MAYOR: Yeah, so tell our listeners, if they wanted to volunteer, what is needed now and how did they do that?
KIRSTEN LEVITT: Volunteering is very easy. We have lots and lots of different volunteer shifts and different levels of exposure for people.
So if you'd like to not stand around and chop vegetables or put together boxes, or serve food, but you'd like to deliver meals, you can be a delivery driver, or you can come to food preps or start to...
MAYOR: Food prep is Friday night?
KIRSTEN LEVITT:Food prep is Friday starting at 2:00 in the afternoon. There are several shifts on Friday and then several shifts on Saturday.
MAYOR: I guess so, if you're gonna continuously pump out 300 to 500 meals.
KIRSTEN LEVITT: Yeah five to six hundred meals these days. And you know, we were 100% cooking from scratch. So we're not opening cans of pre-made food or bringing out frozen lasagna. I was a school teacher and I set my classroom up for the student had the most needs. And I do that as a chef by running a hundred percent gluten-free facility and ensuring that I know every ingredient that goes into the food by not having pre-made food. So you won't find things like preservatives in our food. It's all fresh but it takes a lot of hands to make kale for 600. You know, it's six cases of kale for 600 and it takes a lot of hands and a lot of hours to rip the kale and chop the kale and wash the kale and, right? Just imagine.
MAYOR: Do have a little song that goes along?
KIRSTEN LEVITT: I wish. You know what, "I've been working on the kale railroad." I don't know. That might be an interesting. That, that, you know, if you come up with a song Roxann, we'll try to sing it. We always have music playing and dancing around.
MAYOR: Okay. And it is time. I understand, for a break so we will break and be back very shortly.
What is a Cherry Sheet?
Named for the pink-colored paper on which it was originally printed, the Cherry Sheet is the official notification from the Commissioner of Revenue of the upcoming fiscal year's state aid and assessments to cities, towns, and regional school districts.
The sheets have two parts: Receipts and Assessments. Those broader sections are also divided into municipal receipts and assessments and school receipts and assessments. Simply put, receipts refers to the various forms of state aid funds given back to a community for things like Regional Library Aid, and School Transportation reimbursements; and assessments refers to money owed back to the state by a city or town, and includes categories like Mosquito Control Projects or Retired Teachers' Health Insurance.
Massachusetts Department of Revenue Division of Local Services also known as DLS has also created a Cherry Sheet Manual to guide public officials, as well as private citizens and organizations interested in municipal finance, through the Cherry Sheet. Go to www.mass.gov and search for cherry-sheet-manual
Greenfield includes the Cherry Sheet data in its annual budget book - available on or shortly after April 1 of each year, and posted on the city’s website. We do not use pink paper for this reposted information.
(SEGMENT TWO OF PODCAST)
MAYOR: Hello there, everyone back with Kirsten Levitt of Stone Soup Cafe. Kirsten, we were talking about volunteers. Lots of great ways to volunteer. How do they sign up?
KIRSTEN LEVITT: So you go to our website, which is the-stone-soup-cafe-dot-org and there's a volunteer tab and you get to pick what activity, what day, what time. It's all up to you. Very easy system and we invite anybody and everybody to come. Just last week, we had a fantastic group from Four Rivers who's learning about food insecurity. We made an extra volunteer shift for them before the regular shift.
KIRSTEN LEVITT: It was fantastic to have 10 students all wanting to understand about food chain and food security and food justice. It was really interesting. But, volunteers can definitely sign up. When you're on our website, you can also always support our cause, right?
MAYOR: Right. Donations.
KIRSTEN LEVITT: Absolutely.
MAYOR: Yeah, we, we can't volunteer but you know.
KIRSTEN LEVITT: Or if you can, let me tell you some of our volunteers are also our most generous donors.
KIRSTEN LEVITT: And people can voluntarily donate for their meals there as well. And I do believe there is a link to reserve your meal. So, if you need your meals delivered we definitely will deliver to you. We deliver to 20 of the towns in Franklin County.
MAYOR: Oh, wow.
KIRSTEN LEVITT: So you know, we're happy to have people sign up and have those meals. If they just want one for that day or want to feed their whole family, or need a couple of extra meals to tide them over for the week, and they can choose do they want it just that Saturday or would they like to have a recurring meal delivered to them.
MAYOR: That's good to know. Very good to know. I'd like to switch gears here a little bit because I know in years, sometime ago after we became friends, you talked about how much you really, your dream in addition to keeping Stone Soup going was to have a Culinary Institute. And you have one. Can you tell us about that?
KIRSTEN LEVITT: Oh, yeah, my goodness a dream came true, you know. And when you put something out into the universe like that and you start telling people, magic happens.
KIRSTEN LEVITT: And we took a very bold step about 15 months ago and wrote a grant where we wrote our dream into the grant and it was granted and it was amazing. We're very honored to have the state have given us this opportunity. And so last year we created curriculum and syllabuses and and all the methodology and pedagogy that was going to happen in our institute. We invited five participants to come and be with us. They were with us for 12 weeks. All five graduated in August. It was a lovely ceremony. And all five are working in some capacity in the culinary field.
MAYOR: Oh, that's wonderful. And are these people who may not otherwise have been able to get a job or hadn't didn't have skillsets? In other words, are you teaching different people new skillsets that then they can go on and use?
KIRSTEN LEVITT: It was an extremely diverse group. So in that group, we had people that had learning to disabilities. We had people who were in the industry but had no skills to be advancing themselves. We had people who want to start their own businesses, but also still needed to have employment in food industry and we had one who runs a nonprofit where they do school programs for children and that person wanted to bring everything they learned in the culinary program, so that they could teach children about making food and they wanted to have their certification. So it was a very interesting diverse group of people.
And yeah, each one of them has gone on to different kinds of food service and two of them are actually working at local colleges.
MAYOR: Oh good. Good. Excellent. Excellent.
KIRSTEN LEVITT: It's quite amazing. So thanks to the City of Greenfield MJ Adams, and Christian LaPlante, and Athena reached out to us last spring and said, "Would you like to partner with an Urban Agenda Grant?" And that grant is making this next cohort possible.
MAYOR: Oh good. Good. Good. Good.
KIRSTEN LEVITT: We have been holding open houses and doing marketing and we have had about 35 people apply. And we are going through... The application process has closed now, but we are going through all of our applicants and looking at who's really ready to be in the program and we're probably going to accept eight.
MAYOR: Oh good. I was wondering is there a maximum number you think you can handle at the moment?
KIRSTEN LEVITT: Yeah in our current location, eight is probably the golden number just because you know, we're in a church basement and although we do have some commercial equipment, we want to make sure that everybody can get on a stove and everybody can do their practicums. But uh sometime maybe in the next two years we'll be in a different location.
MAYOR: Well, that's what I was going to ask next. Is any other dreams out there with regard to this?
KIRSTEN LEVITT: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely! I have to be honest.
MAYOR: You're looking for a location.
KIRSTEN LEVITT: We are looking and we're in conversation with someone who approached us. That's all I'm going to say about that. It's very exciting.
For years. I had The Culinary Institute dream, but I've also dreamed about one location where people who need food can come all the time. Currently, we have four amazing programs in our city. We still have a gap. There's no Thursday or Friday evening in Greenfield where you could get a meal. And programs are struggling by themselves. And I'm going to say that my dream is to invite everybody under one roof and have one place with known hours, and known guidelines, and space for the community to come together and eat together in the Stone Soup model.
KIRSTEN LEVITT: And hopefully what that will do is decrease the pressure that happens to a person who's food insecure or unhoused and food insecure because knowing that you have to go to this place at 4 o'clock, and that place at six o'clock, and this place at five o'clock and what days and what address and all the different ways that people carry out their operations. That's too much noise for a person who's just trying to survive.
MAYOR: That's true. That's very true. And when you said four amazing programs, you mean in addition to, or including Stone Soup? Because I know of the one that occurs here.
KIRSTEN LEVITT: So Franklin County Community Meals.
MAYOR: Right-- at the Second Congo (Congregational Church) next door to City Hall... Saint James and and Andrew...
KIRSTEN LEVITT: And the Salvation Army.
KIRSTEN LEVITT: The Salvation Army provides an amazing backbone Monday through Friday for coffee and danish and a bag lunch, right?
KIRSTEN LEVITT: And I don't ever want to leave them out and I do believe although I don't have confirmation that at least once a month, Holy Trinity is doing something.
MAYOR: That used to be the case pre-pandemic. I was aware of that. I think that Blessed Sacrament on Federal Street, might do something.
KIRSTEN LEVITT: They have a food pantry.
MAYOR: Okay food pantry.
KIRSTEN LEVITT: So then there's also that. In, in Greenfield we have Blessed Sacrament's food pantry. We have Stone Soup's food pantry.
MAYOR: A lot of people don't literally have the wherewithal to prepare food they might have picked up in a food pantry.
KIRSTEN LEVITT: We've done surveying of all of our guests and 20% of the people who come and pick up meals at curbside have zero kitchens.
MAYOR: Yeah. Yeah. That doesn't surprise me a bit. Just based on what I see, from the, I think it's Tuesday-Wednesday evenings at the Second Congo here.
KIRSTEN LEVITT: Yeah, and the Center for Self Reliance on Main Street also is a food pantry that's open quite a bit and also operates up in Shelburne for the west county. So we do have these programs. We have multiple programs. But in reality, it wouldn't it be great if we were under one roof, conserving our energies and putting them into the community in a different way. And so that's my big dream.
MAYOR: Okay. Nothing nothing wrong with a good dream.
KIRSTEN LEVITT: Yeah. It's a big one, you know. It's gonna take it's gonna take a lot of collaborations and partnerships.
MAYOR: Right and and money, I'm sure, down the road. But I think there is a willingness out there certainly in Massachusetts to recognize food insecurity and the work that Congressman McGovern does at the national level hopefully will serve you well, because of your wonderful reputation.
KIRSTEN LEVITT: I'm so lucky to not only know Jim but have gone and represented Western Mass in in DC in September.
MAYOR: That's correct. Very recently.
KIRSTEN LEVITT: That was very exciting.
MAYOR: I remember you being a little apprehensive about it.
KIRSTEN LEVITT: Yes, I was, and I got to say, I was born and raised in New York City. That's a big city. I got into airports and then on the ground in DC and I realize that I have turned into a ruralight... Maybe I wouldn't quite say a country bumpkin, but I I kind of was overwhelmed and Amazed by all of the like urban setting once again because I've been here and really here for more than 20 years. You know, 24, almost 24 years. So it was amazing to see how big systems work.
MAYOR: Right. Good.
KIRSTEN LEVITT: It was also really hard when I got to DC and got off the Metro to where I was going to the hotel to see homeless encampments in the parks right there. Yeah, so that was that was difficult. But we have you know, both Jo Comerford and Natalie Blais come and volunteer at the cafe. They usually come on Fridays. They come at least once every two months.
MAYOR: Well, I might have to join them. I have very little time for that type of thing, but Friday nights might be my good time to do it. So expect me to show up one of those. I'll go online and put my name in and stuff like that.
KIRSTEN LEVITT: You're always welcome.
I'll just say one more thing, which is we're going to be working on food justice. Jo and myself for Massachusetts based off of President Biden's plan. The White House's plan to end hunger and boost health and nutrition in the country by 2030. So I you know, look for more information coming, you know.
MAYOR: That sounds like a great way to wrap up this segment and I want to thank you again for the wonderful work that you do but also for sharing it with us today. Thank you so much.
KIRSTEN LEVITT: Thanks for the opportunity Roxann. I Really appreciate it.
MAYOR: Sure. You can find the Mayor's Roundtable on the City website or wherever you get your podcasts. So please join us for another podcast next month.