ITHACA, N.Y.—The Southside Community Center provides a plethora of essential afterschool and preteen programming to hundreds of families every week, plus monthly community meals, a food pantry and ready-to-take fresh, free meals for community members on the streets among other programming. They hope to expand that with a recently approved influx of funding that will help improve the center’s cooking area.

All the meals are made by head chef Sharon Payne, who makes more than a hundred meals a day—all from the confines of the center’s extremely modest kitchen, at 305 South Plain Street in Ithaca.

“Because the space is so small, there’s only so much we can do,” Southside Community Center Deputy Director Kayla Matos said.

“Our head chef Sharon makes food so our kids can have seconds,” Executive Director Chavon Bunch said. “I would say about a hundred are made every day.”

During budget season, Southside was awarded $200,000 by the City of Ithaca for a 2023 project to fund the much-needed kitchen renovation. More fridge and freezer space, additional stovetops and counter space are all priorities in the renovation, and plans are in the works with a contractor.

“Really, the aspiration is to bring more programs in and be able to produce more easily,” Matos said. “We’d like to highlight cooking classes for the kids, add a senior breakfast, amplify community meals and welcome the kids into the kitchen to cook with Sharon. Home economics is completely ignored in schools nowadays.”

Parents and staff also eat, Bunch said. “I am Sharon’s back-up, and it’s a lot of work. There can’t really be two people in there, but it’s really tough.”

Southside has partnered with local farms in the past for fresh produce. Otherwise, ingredients are typically purchased from Wegman’s or BJ’s Wholesale Club.

“Hopefully there are other farms we can talk to to work something out,” Bunch said.

Matos also said that Southside tries to have warm meals available to those in need to pick them up after hours.

“We try, every night, to have extras for anyone who comes in off the streets,” she said.

Though logistics haven’t quite been worked out yet, Bunch said they are hopeful that the project will start and finish during the break in the afterschool programming at the end of the summer.

Bunch and Matos said that another goal, when the kitchen update is completed, will be for the space to serve as a ghost kitchen for community members.

Zoë Freer-Hessler

Zoë Freer-Hessler is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. She has covered a wide range of topics since joining the news organization in November 2021. She can be reached at