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Community Kitchen has been 'thriving' since doors opened
COOKING — Priscilla Burnette of the Progress Center stands in the new Community Kitchen prior to its open house in September of 2011.
NORWAY — The Community Kitchen at the Progress Center has been "thriving" since it opened its doors over a year ago, said the center's Executive Director Kristin Benedix.
"Our [dedicated] board and staff members, along with the support of our community have made this and so much more possible," she wrote in the Progress Center's winter newsletter.
On September 29, 2011, the Community Kitchen, on Cottage Street, celebrated its grand opening with a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by area residents, Progress Center staff and clients and even local and state leaders.
The kitchen is a state-of-the-art, commercial food storage and dining area where more than 5,658 free meals have been prepared and served within the last year, said Kitchen Manager Lee Barker.
Priscilla Burnette, assistant administrator for marketing and public relations, said some nights it's so busy at the kitchen that you'd be lucky to even find a spot to park your car in the Progress Center parking lot (unless you arrive early.)
The Community Kitchen serves meals four times a month, Burnette said – the first and third Thursdays in the evenings and second and fourth Tuesdays at noontime.
"Our goal is to have it open three days a week," Burnette said, "but we're certainly not jumping into that right off because we've got to be sure that we can cover all of our costs."
The $240,000 kitchen was built with community donations, private funding, a Community Development Block Grant and a USDA Rural Development Grant.
According to Barker, the Community Kitchen's goal is to serve the needy, but also allows private parties to rent it for baby showers, birthday parties and other events, like cooking classes.
"There's been great interest for a girl's weekend," Barker explained. "These ladies came in and what they were looking for ... was maybe to hire a chef to teach them how to cook a certain dish ... sit back, relax and have a day of it."
"Everything seems to be going pretty good," he said.
Local farmers and entrepreneurs looking to start a small businesses can benefit from the kitchen as well, Barker said.
"Quite a few people have come in, they were all in the early stages," Barker said, of those looking to start a business. "I've had people come in ... looking to make pies for sale, gluten-free products, canning products, things like that.
"There's a lot of talk in the air. I am just waiting for people to hook on to it and start the process."
Barker said a good portion of the food used at the kitchen is donated by the Good Shepard Food Bank.
"We have volunteers that go down to Good Shepard, they put in some hours down there and it goes toward their credit for the food we purchase, and we pick up the difference," said Barker, "and obviously they don't have everything we need, so we buy the remaining ingredients."
Barker said the intent is to serve healthy meals, but the options are limited by what Good Shepard can provide. "We can't do 100 percent [healthy] ... we put the food together and see what we can come up with," he explained.
"Everything is balanced and nutritious," Burnette added. "We are not serving junk food."
According to Barker, the Community Kitchen staff is made up of 20 or more volunteers who help with preparation of meals, serving meals and cleaning up.
Burnette said the meals provided are known as the Oxford Hills Community Table, which started with just two evening meals, but with a growing need in the area, eventually expanded to two lunches per week as well.
Burnette said the idea behind the Community Kitchen is three-fold – to feed friends and neighbors who need extra food security, to provide employment or volunteer opportunities for Progress Center clients and to provide a place for entrepreneurs "to get their feet wet."
The money from kitchen rentals helps with ongoing expenses, said Burnette, but the kitchen is also constantly receiving support from various private foundations, local businesses and organizations in order to keep providing meals.
"It's been quite an undertaking during this economic decline," Burnette said.
She said while there's a core group of people that frequents the kitchen for every meal, she has also noticed many new faces recently.
"We're doing whatever we can to help those that need it," Burnette said.
"It's been a true community effort. It's a good feeling to know we've been accepted so easily ... by the community."