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The Northampton Senior Center is now serving an affordable lunch twice a week, while the same program gives inmates at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Corrections the opportunity to use skills they’ve learned through the jail’s culinary program.
Each Tuesday and Thursday, inmates arrive at the Senior Center and help prepare a menu to serve to seniors and the community at large, a service that the Senior Center had been lacking in recent years, according to Heather Cahillane, the center’s assistant director and volunteer coordinator for the past four years.
“People would bring their mom in … and we had to say, ‘Sorry, we don’t offer lunch service,’” Cahillane said. “We were sending people to a site across the street but not here, so it was a service we were lacking.”
In prior years, the center’s staff learned that volunteer-run lunches were not as reliable as they need to be, and the previous hiring of a full-time food service coordinator to manage the lunch operation had the center running in the red.
Cahillane saw a newspaper article in August 2016 about the culinary program at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Corrections, coincidentally overseen by her father, Hampshire County Sheriff Patrick Cahillane.
The program was developed by Nelson Lacey, chair of the Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School’s Culinary Arts Department. Inmates spend at least three months learning how to cook and earning their ServSafe certification, which gives them skills they can use to land a job, and security, when they are released.
“These are people who need skills to get back into the workforce and community,” Cahillane said, “and we have this need to offer some kind of lunch service, but we can’t be running in the red and we can’t rely on volunteers.”
After some startup costs, like a panini press and kitchen equipment, the program began in October, with three to five senior center volunteers serving as wait staff and cashiers.
Prices are kept low: $2 for a slice of cheese pizza and $5 for a substantial grilled chicken salad with mixed greens. Cahillane said the center’s staff know which people may be more limited financially and provide vouchers to those who need it.
“We’re not running in the red,” she said.
The lunch is also open to the public.
“Some of the area businesses will come in and have lunch,” Cahillane said. “People come in and say they really like the concept and they’re supporting a positive thing in the community.”
The program only runs on Tuesdays and Thursday because of the inmates’ other obligations, she said.
“The guys from the jail would love to be here every day – we have a fun time and it’s fun to plan the menus – but they also have obligations they have to meet,” she said. “They’re in different treatment classes and in the process of putting their lives back together.”
Leftover soups and sandwiches from the lunch service are put in the Senior Center’s coffee shop for sale on other days of the week.