The smell of pumpkin pie soup wafted through the air in the basement of the Congregational Church of Patchogue on Wednesday night, and a line of people - bowls in hand - snaked around the serving table.
“Are we already on seconds?” asked Rev. Dwight Wolter, as he grabbed a serving for himself and stowed it away in the refrigerator.
The church was hosting a special Octoberfest meal, courtesy of guest chef Joe Felicetta (whose last name means “a little bit of happiness,” though he says he brings a lot more). In addition to soup, his menu included roast pork loin, red cabbage, potato pancakes and baked apples.
For one hour every Wednesday evening, the church hosts a soup kitchen sponsored by the Interfaith Nutrition Network, a network of soup kitchens and emergency shelters on Long Island.
The Congregational Church, located on Main Street, is one of four churches in Patchogue that hosts the INN throughout the week, together serving more than 18,000 meals a year in that community alone.
Run entirely by volunteers and donations - in the past, INN received state and federal funding, but it has been cut in recent years - INN has run the soup kitchen at the Congregational Church for about 25 years, Wolter said.
Bonnie Underwood, of Patchogue, has been a volunteer since the soup kitchen’s inception in 1986. She said that over the years, she’s seen the numbers of guests rise dramatically as the economy worsens. The profile of the guests have also changed.
“There are some homeless, but not many,” she said. “Basically, any of us can come on hard times.”
Wolter said it’s the working poor he’s most worried about, because most likely that person is new to hunger and uncomfortable reaching out for help.
“This is the first time they are experiencing hunger,” he said, describing the working poor as people who just can’t make ends meet on their salaries. “Whether they are in their 50s, their 20s, or their 70s.”
But he said so many people he sees are reliant on the help they receive from the INN and the local churches. On Wednesday, one man from Bohemia took two buses to and from the church for a warm meal, and another man lingered around after the meal for Wolter, who was getting him a list of all the local soup kitchens and which days they serve.
He said an event like this week’s Octoberfest is a good way to bring everyone together and make people feel more comfortable about attending a soup kitchen.
“It’s a celebration,” he said. “It’s fun in there. It’s great food. It’s not just soup and bread and everyone’s depressed.”