Each Monday, Toni Mistretta and her five helpers come together in the kitchen at the rear of First Congregational Church in Riverhead to prepare hot meals for anyone who needs one, no questions asked.
This past Monday, a big pot of creamy tomato and rice soup sat warming on the stove, next to a pot of beef and vegetable soup. Meatballs and gravy simmered in the oven, along with a tray of sausage and peppers and a pasta dish.
At 5:30 p.m., the doors are opened to let in upwards of 70 people who come to the church’s Bread and More soup kitchen for a good dinner, complete with bread and dessert. The soup kitchen serves meals to all comers on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings.
“We see men and women, individual men who have worked all day somewhere, often entire families with young children,” said Ms. Mistretta, who is the Monday night crew boss. She’s done this work at Bread and More for eight years and can’t think of a time when she wouldn’t want to be here, helping anyone who needs it.
The church started Bread and More in 1990, and Ms. Mistretta and her team have seen the numbers spike in recent years. More families with young children come now, filing in quietly to pick up a paper bag with their meals. Since the onset of COVID-19, there have been no sit-down meals and only takeout is available.
And there are regulars Ms. Mistretta used to see who no longer come.
“We have lost a good 20 people in recent years,” she said. “Some were lost to mental illness, or lack of health care, or pedestrian accidents. Some were incarcerated, some died of violence. We lose maybe six to eight a year.”
As she shows a visitor what has been prepared for the day, other volunteers prepare trays of food to be placed in bags that are laid out on long tables before the doors are opened to those waiting outside. On this night, they anticipate 70 to 75 people. But looking through a daily diary of what she prepares, Ms. Mistretta points out that 93 people came on Sept. 26.
The Monday volunteers are Phyllis Dennehy, Carolee Olsen, Fran Carroll and his wife, Carol, and Mae Koppelman. They happily talk about the joy of their work. They talk of the local growers who donate boxes of vegetables, the nearby supermarket manager who donates cakes, cookies and donuts. Essentially, the team is operating a farm-to-table soup kitchen — all the fresh vegetables gathered during the day go into that night’s meals.
“The goal each night is to provide a protein, vegetables, a starch,” Ms. Mistretta said. “Everything we pick up is free, and there is no limit on what anyone can take with them. We have plenty of food. Recently we’ve seen a family of five — a mother, father and three young children. They come and pick up their meals. I don’t know where they live.”
Ms. Mistretta grew up in Jericho and moved to Jamesport 22 years ago. She spent her career as a nurse in various hospitals; at one point she was the head nurse in an ICU unit at a Smithtown hospital. She knows what helping people who need it looks like — and the work involved.
Referring to the community of Bread and More’s guests, she said, “I am very dedicated to this group of people. I want to give to the less fortunate. When I retired from nursing, my bucket list was to volunteer in a soup kitchen.”
Will she grow weary of this someday?
“I will do this as long as I can,” she said. “I got here this morning at 9:30 to get everything started. I love it.”