It’s a humbling statistic, but one that Jeffrey Smith says represents a significant milestone for a small city soup kitchen.
This week, St. Susan Center is recognizing its two-millionth meal served to members of the community since it first opened its doors on Feb. 1, 1984. Smith, executive director of the center, said the marker represents the tremendous role that St. Susan Center has played in the community for the past three decades while serving as a reminder of the issue of hunger among residents in the greater Jamestown area. The two-millionth meal was served Wednesday.
“It is a milestone, and I think it shows how our community comes together to help those in need,” Smith said. “And, more than anything, this should be used as an opportunity to raise awareness and make a call to action. I think more people need to be aware of what’s truly going on in the community; because when you’re serving 116,000 meals per year in a city this size, there’s a problem.”
St. Susan Center was founded through the combination of a dream and a tragedy. The dream was first articulated by an ecumenical group of clergy from the southern Chautauqua region who wished to provide a place where the hungry would receive food and strangers would be welcomed, though the group lacked the necessary funding to realize that dream. Following a car accident that would ultimately claim the life of a young downstate New Yorker named Susan Tornebene, who was being treated at WCA Hospital for her injuries, her family made the monetary gift needed to establish the soup kitchen in memory of Tornebene and in honor of the clergy and WCA Hospital staff who cared for her.
At its initial location in the former St. James School, where Walgreens now sits, the center served 1,089,021 meals before relocating in 2006. The center is now housed in the Gateway Center at 31 Water St. in Jamestown, where it has more than doubled its operations. The most glaring statistic resides in the fact that the center has reached its second million-meal marker only nine years after reaching its first million, which took 22 years to achieve.
Another startling indicator of the area’s hunger problem is that 47 food pantries exist within Chautauqua County alone. “That’s a very telling statistic as to how much need there is in the community,” Smith said.
Smith said the center currently serves about 350 meals per day, with the highest number of meals served in a single day being 719 – which took place Oct. 30 of last year. It has experienced an upward trend in meals served annually since closing its food pantry in 2009 to focus solely on its soup kitchen. Most recently, the center served 108,097 meals in 2013 and 116,832 last year. This year, it is projected that upwards of 125,000 meals will be served.
“It’s very humbling,” Smith said. “Personally, I count my blessings to be able to do this, and we do everything we can to help those who come here.”
The center serves from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, and from 1:30-3:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. It is open to the community 361 days a year – closing only on New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day – and nobody who enters the building is turned away.
Smith said the center works with approximately 200 volunteers from the community throughout the year, 80 of whom volunteer their time on a weekly basis. In addition to serving meals to the hungry, he said the center also serves as a place where people can learn useful skills in areas such as food service and maintenance.