For the last 17 years, community supper at the Middlebury Congregational Church has reliably provided members of the local community with a home-cooked meal on Friday nights. When the pandemic started in March 2020, the church was forced to pause and re-envision community suppers.
Middlebury alumna and local community member Dottie Neuberger ’58 has been organizing the community supper program since its inception in 2004. She enjoys the connectedness that comes from providing the food and gathering for sit-down meals in the church, but the pandemic has changed the way the local community is able to connect, bringing challenges for the program.
When the pandemic first hit, and members of the community could no longer gather in person, Neuberger reached out to local school nurses to identify families in the community that would benefit from having a meal prepared for them on Friday evenings. This version of the program continued to serve a limited number of walk-ups and families, and delivered meals to the Commons, a restricted income housing community.
Neuberger described the initial problems with this altered program, explaining that “the biggest challenge was trying to figure out how to actually produce a meal for that number of people when we could only have a limited number of volunteers in the church.”
Middlebury College students have always been an important part of community suppers. In the past, student organizations and athletic teams have helped to prepare and serve the meals on Friday evenings, and with students unable to volunteer in the same capacity, the operations of the program were further hindered. Since the college resumed in-person classes last fall, students have been coming back in smaller groups to help with packaging and delivering meals, which has been a great help to Neuberger and her team.
The meals are now primarily prepared by local establishments including Rosie’s Restaurant, Green Peppers Restaurant and the Swift House Inn. The community supper program also has a grant through January 2022 that helps them partner with restaurants who themselves partnered with farmers to get local food to community members in need.
In the last year and a half, the community supper program has been able to expand to serve around 280 meals every week and deliver to a family population of 160. Neuberger reported that fewer individuals are coming for meals, but more families are being provided meals than when the meals were sit-down, likely because it is difficult for families to coordinate going to community supper. Being able to provide more families with meals has been an unexpected upshot of the challenges posed by Covid-19 restrictions.
Still, Neuberger expressed a wish to return to more typical community suppers.
“When we can get back to it, we would certainly like to be able to offer a meal inside the church because part of the benefit of the suppers was the sociability of it,” she said. “The biggest loss for the individuals is the lack of sociability, but we have tried to maintain that as much as we possibly could.”
According to Neuberger, the drivers who deliver meals, as well as volunteers who distribute them, have significantly helped maintain the important connections. The placement of several porch chairs by the pickup location at the church has also created space to socialize.
At this time, Neuberger is unsure what the future of the community supper program will look like. She would like to continue to serve this increased number of families but also hopes to return to sit-down meals. These dual interests mean that future community suppers may be a hybrid between the old model and the current one, showing the value of the program and its traditions as well as its adaptability and still relevant vitality to the local community.