“Soup Kitchens”—their focus is food, but they can be about community connection. Did you know that the word “companion” comes from the Latin words meaning “bread” and “together”? By welcoming everyone and fostering a space for sharing and companionship, soup kitchens can be places for restoring not only the body but the community as a whole. They can be gathering tables, hence how The Gathering Table soup kitchen in Cashiers, North Carolina got its name.
The Gathering Table serves anywhere from 50-120, as-local-as-can-be, mostly organic, veggie-packed meals every Thursday night at the Cashiers Valley Community Center. The kitchen is musty, the refrigerator donated, and the clientele diverse. Tonight’s feast consists of salmon croquets, mashed potatoes, organic carrots, cabbage, lentil soup, southern white biscuits, and leftover pecan pie from a community church function.
Diners grab themselves a drink and sit around plastic tables listening to Jay Drummond’s volunteer bluegrass band while waiting for Chef Donna Few, farmer and Gathering Table founder, to fix their plates. Whatever ingredients are not purchased from the Manna foodbank network or donated by the Fishes and Loaves food pantry across the street, Donna and the other farmers in the Blue Ridge Farmers Co-op contribute to the meal.
Volunteers come to help but also to hang and eat. The energy’s always good and everyone enjoys themselves. (This week’s kitchen banter is about how “Yankees put sugar in everything they try to make southern!”) David Ward, dedicated Gathering Table dish washing volunteer, feels the Gathering Table is special. He says, “This is a small town. People are sometimes scared to go to the ‘soup kitchen’ because of their pride and the small town chitter chatter. We invite anyone and everyone to come eat with us, the rich and the poor, anyone who wants to just gather.”
David’s right. Cashiers is a vacation town with no middle class. People are either wealthy second home owners on vacation or they live paycheck to paycheck. The town is in the middle of Jackson County where today 20.4 percent of residents live below the poverty line while 29.9 percent of children under 18 in all of Western North Carolina are food insecure.
There is a disconnect between the people who support the town financially and those who actually work there. The Gathering Table not only brings attention to the hunger needs in the community but more importantly invites everyone to come and eat together. Donna calls The Gathering Table the “Church of Food.” The focus is on relationships built around quality food that’s served for free, not on necessarily serving “poor people.” People from all walks of life who typically would never cross paths converse and share life over deliciously whipped up veggie meals.
People who are hungry hear about the meal through church bulletins and Spanish and English fliers plastered around town. More mountain people join for the meal during winter since there are no crops in the coldest months and fewer vacationers come through Cashiers to support their local businesses. Those who aren’t so hungry hear about the meals through Facebook, other friends who have dined there, or The Gathering Table’s loud and proactive board members.
Last year when Donna started The Gathering Table, she faced opposition from several Cashiers stakeholders who frankly said there was no need for a soup kitchen. She decided to start it anyway, focusing on good food and inviting anyone and everyone to come eat. Fast forward a year, and today The Gathering Table receives donations and volunteer support from established community member, and people from all over the socioeconomic spectrum come out and dine on Thursday nights.
Soon The Gathering Table will start serving meals on Monday nights, too. Funny how bringing everyone to the table changes minds and opens eyes to the needs of others, dissipating opposition and leaving one town a little less hungry and a little more tight knit.