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Groton - The day the Sunshine Kitchen at Fitch Middle School closed in 2008, director Mary Howland had hundreds of cans of food in her basement and the kitchen's board of directors had $33,000 in the bank.
Howland didn't want the soup kitchen to close. But she was sick and could no longer run it.
So the kitchen's board split the $33,000 three ways among St. Vincent de Paul Place in Norwich, the New London Community Meal Center and the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center.
Then volunteers arrived at Howland's house and hauled away every box of food she'd collected.
"I cried. I just cried," she said. "I really felt that everything I was meant to do was over."
Now, without a soup kitchen in the Poquonnock Bridge section of town, people in some of Groton's poorest neighborhoods must wait for the mobile food pantry to arrive, collect as much as possible from the Groton Food Locker, ask churches for help or get transportation to the soup kitchen offered by The Pleasant Valley Community of Prayer & Praise across town.
So the town is again exploring ways to deal with hunger as a community problem. Two weeks ago, Human Services Director Marge Fondulas and the Rev. Ho-Soon Han, pastor of Christ United Methodist Church, said the demand for free food has reached the point that Groton needs a more centrally located soup kitchen. Fondulas said she's heard from "interested parties" and hopes to set up a community meeting shortly.
A member of the Groton Parks and Recreation Commission, along with two members of Ledyard Community church, one of whom served as a former cook at St. Vincent de Paul Place, have offered to help.
Howland was involved with two previous community meal programs in Groton - the Sunshine Kitchen, started by Union Baptist Church and other churches in 1992, and the F.A.M.I.L.Y. Kitchen, located in Faith Lutheran Church, starting in 2010.
Howland said she's glad Human Services is aware of the need for a soup kitchen, as she knows how tough it can be to run one.
The plan for the Sunshine Kitchen from the start was to serve weekly free meals to anyone who wanted them, regardless of income. Stonington High School hosted it first; it moved to Groton in 1997. Howland became director in 2003, after she attended a board meeting and heard it might close.
She'd worked at soup kitchens since age 17 and had the certifications to do it. She'd also volunteered with groups like the New London Community Meal Center Inc., the American Red Cross, United Way and the Poquonnock Bridge Neighborhood Association Community Garden.
She decided to stop accepting state aid on behalf of the kitchen and run it solely on donations. It worked. Food drives at Stop & Shop brought in thousands in cash and dozens of cases of food. Within months, the kitchen was feeding more than 100 people a week and had 60 volunteers.
But Howland was also caring for her seriously ill father. Then she herself became ill.
Howland found a friend to run the kitchen for a year while she worked behind the scenes, organizing drives, shopping and scheduling volunteers. But it became too much, so she stopped after telling the board, "'We need to get somebody to step up.' And nobody could. … So they voted to close."
The last night the kitchen was open, she and her volunteers went all out: They served pork roast with apricot sauce, cream of tomato basil soup, roasted chicken and salmon.
She said she wanted to stay for that meal but it has too hard, so she said goodbye and left.
A year or two later, Howland was ready to try again.
She wrote an opinion piece that ran in The Day, and Faith Lutheran Church at 625 Poquonnock Road contacted her. Howland set up a nonprofit organization, began fundraising, and she and a church member became co-directors.
The F.A.M.I.L.Y. Kitchen, which stands for "Forget about me, I love you," offered its first weekly meal on May 9, 2010. It served about 60 people a week, mostly from Groton. It eventually drew from a roster of 52 volunteers, including eight regulars.
Records from the State Department of Public Health show the F.A.M.I.L.Y. Kitchen earned scores of 98, 99 and 100 percent in 2010 and 2011.
But the job was full-time and all-consuming; when Howland became sick again, she knew she had to stop.
Sue Lantelme, a member of Faith Lutheran who served as co-director with Howland, said it's a lot harder to run a soup kitchen than most people realize. Someone has to raise money, shop, train and recruit volunteers, plan meals and then cook, serve and clean up every week. It could be an ideal volunteer opportunity for young people, but they're often busy with academics, athletics and other activities, she said.
The kitchen director must also be a qualified food operator and certified food handler, as Howland was. Lantelme works full-time as a librarian at Ledyard High School.
"Mary was our cook," Lantelme said. "So she was here every week. She knew how to cook for 100 people." She said maybe, if the church did well, it could have found someone to cook once a month.
The Rev. Andy Sorenson, who became pastor of Faith Lutheran about four months before the kitchen closed, said the church didn't have anyone else trained and didn't have enough people to keep it going. The F.A.M.I.L.Y. Kitchen closed in June 2011.
But a soup kitchen is badly needed in the Poquonnock Bridge area, Sorenson said. He said the church has offered its facility.
As difficult as it was to run a kitchen, Howland said she'd do it again if she only could. Even if she couldn't direct one, she knows how to get one started, she said.
"I could have them set up in a New York minute," she said. "There is a desperate, screaming need for a soup kitchen in this town. And believe me, if I thought my nerves and my health would do it again, I would do it again."