Joyce Mason Saved ‘Lord’s Kitchen,’ An Much More
By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
In 2008, Joyce Mason, working as a missionary in Honduras, got an urgent message that she was needed at home in Oneonta.
“Opportunities for Otsego had decided to give the Lord’s Table two weeks’ notice that they would no longer run it,” she said. “And although they tried to limp along, it wasn’t enough.”
After locating a landline phone to talk with the staff at St. James Episcopal Church, Mason came back to Oneonta as director of the nightly feeding ministry and the Loaves & Fishes food pantry.
“I got home on May 31,” she said. “I went into work on June 2, and I’ve been here ever since.”
And at the end of the year, Mason will retire from feeding families, the elderly and the disenfranchised after 22 years of service.
“If people are hungry, you have to feed them,” she said. “That’s important. It doesn’t matter if they’re rich or poor or sideways. Anyone can come.”
A native of Forrest Hills, Mason moved to Sidney with her husband, James. He passed away in 1995, leaving her with their two sons, James and Peter.
“After they graduated high school, I became a missionary,” she said. “And I was sent to Honduras.”
But when she got back, there was much work to be done to get the pantry and the kitchen where they needed to be to serve the city’s hungry.
“When I got here, it was not a happy situation,” she said. “So much of what was in the freezers wasn’t labeled, and I had to throw everything in the dumpster. It made me very sad.”
She immediately set to restocking the fridges. “I ordered food from the Regional Food Bank and, sometimes, from restaurants or catered events, like weddings,” she said. “And I started calling every group I could get to help serve the meals.”
With the First United Methodist Church hosting Saturday’s Bread, and the Salvation Army offering the “Meal With a Message,” a hot meal is offered free of charge seven days a week in the city.
“There is no place else between Albany and Binghamton that does that,” Mason said. “And in a town this size, we’re absolutely blessed to have three meal service programs.”
In 2018, Mason spearheaded the formation of the Otsego County Hunger Coalition, creating a network of all the food pantries, feeding programs and farmers’ markets in the county to make sure everyone has access to food wherever they may be.
But there have been challenges along the way. “After the flood of 2011, we were the Otsego County Disaster Feeding program,” she said. “St. Mary’s was housing people, many of them from
Lantern Hill” – the Southside trailer park – “and we had to feed them three meals a day.’
She was preparing lunch for the flood victims one afternoon when she smelled smoke. “The food pantry was on fire,” she said.
Rather than shut down, the pantry moved into St. James and continued its ministry. “We were closed from Friday to Tuesday,” she said. “We had to keep it going.”
The pantry was rededicated in March 2012, and Mason was lauded by Father Kenneth Hunter for continuing to feed the most needy among them.
And this year, the ministries had to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the Lord’s Table to go to take-out only.
This year, 3,642 households have received food, the highest number in five years.
“It’s tough for the older people especially,” she said. “They need that socialization of sitting down and having a meal with somebody. It’s not available to us right now, but as soon as we can reopen, we will.”
It has also limited the food available at the pantry. “We’re having a lot of trouble getting beef or pork,” she said. “It’s just not available.”
While Mason is leaving her post at year’s end, she doesn’t expect to stay put for long in her retirement. “I’m a missionary at heart,” she said. “I go where I’m needed.”