BELFAST — There is a building on Belmont Avenue that looks like a restaurant.

Manicured gardens embrace the facility, cheerful staff welcome patrons and prepare meals as friends play catch-up over coffee in a spacious and finely appointed dining room.

Welcome to the Belfast Soup Kitchen, where community is on the menu year-round.

In some ways Belfast Soup Kitchen is a restaurant. The organization provides healthy meals to guests in its Belmont Avenue (Route 3) facility five days a week, 52 weeks a year. It’s here that the restaurant comparison ends, as the Soup Kitchen provides a wide range of additional services designed to feed Waldo County.

“We’re doing whatever we can,” Executive Director Cherie Merrill said. “We believe in meeting people where they are.”

In addition to the daily meal, Belfast Soup Kitchen delivers meals and fresh produce to local food pantries and to those who cannot travel, provides a summer food program for kids, warehouses locally grown produce, and operates two commercial dehydrators to provide a unique service.

Belfast Soup Kitchen Executive Director Cherie Merrill displays one of the “soup bags” created by the organization. Photo by: Jim Leonard

“Nothing goes to waste,” Merrill said. “We dehydrate the leftovers to use in our soup packages.”

Once dehydrated, produce is packaged with other ingredients to make a package of soup.

“Just add water and heat,” Merrill said.

Merrill spoke while standing amid a throng of volunteers busy preparing the daily meal, packaging and loading deliveries, or seating patrons. Looking around, Merrill noted their importance.

Volunteers prepare meals for serving and delivery at the Belfast Soup Kitchen. Photo by: Jim Leonard

“Nothing happens without the volunteers, donors and our community partners,” Merrill said. “At this point I think we have 160 volunteers.”

The Soup Kitchen’s new Belmont Avenue building opened in 2020, just in time for the pandemic. Medical protocols required the agency to make an adjustment.

“We couldn’t have people inside,” Merrill said. “So we started curbside pickup and it worked pretty well. In fact, even with the relaxed restrictions, we’re still going to do curbside to help accommodate working families.”

A look at the numbers is informative. Last year Belfast Soup Kitchen provided Waldo County residents with 44,339 daily meals, 30,890 meals for kids, 800 evening meals, 21,579 pantry food bags, and distributed over 87 emergency food boxes. This year soup kitchen is providing over 300 meals a day.

While the daily meal is served in the dining room, a food pantry is also offered. At the same time, volunteers fan out across Waldo County to deliver food to local pantries. The Soup Kitchen also connects guests with other community organizations that can provide assistance.

“We’re a link,” Merrill said. “We bring in professionals from organizations like Restorative Justice, Waldo County Public Health, substance abuse and crisis counselors. We try to meet the needs of as many people as we can.”

The nonprofit also reaches out to children by offering daily educational enrichment opportunities. The kids who participate in its Summer Food Service Program all receive a free slow cooker to use at home.

With a lot on her plate, Merrill is still dreaming of more.

“I’d love to see a regional food pantry,” Merrill said. “There are nine pantries in Waldo County. Some of those are seeing fewer volunteers and others are open only once a week. I’d like to see us band together in one location. We would combine volunteers and could offer more hours. We also wouldn’t have to compete for resources. There’s strength in numbers.”

The current Belfast Soup Kitchen facility on Belmont Avenue was built in 2019. Photo by: Jim Leonard

The typical day at Belfast Soup Kitchen begins at 7 a.m. with preparation for the meals that will be served inside and delivered. Guests arrive around 10 a.m. for a coffee hour while the food pantry opens. Following coffee, a meal is served inside with guests served at their tables.

“When they built the building, they had cafeteria seating in mind,” Merrill said. “They even had the trays.”

Merrill was not comfortable with that arrangement and went about negotiating a donation of plates from Point Lookout.

“It’s more dignified,” Merrill said of the switch from trays to plates. “It’s what the guests deserve.”

On this day the dining room was full of guests grabbing coffee and socializing. Children scurried around at play as a crew of passionate volunteers prepared food for all.

Helping hands, good food and good friends — the very definition of community.