US Soup Kitchens

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, about 795 million people globally do not have enough food (Fao, 2015). This vast issue is not going unnoticed; there are programmes worldwide, like food pantries and soup kitchens, that are working to feed the hungry. Soup kitchens, like Service Dining Rooms (SDR), are facilities that provide meals to those who are unable to feed themselves. Soup kitchens are commonly open on the weekdays and serve either lunch or dinner to anywhere between 30 and 1,000 people. While they are not the only people to take advantage of the service, the homeless are the largest demographic of people who rely on soup kitchens for their daily meals. The unemployed, working poor, public assistance recipients, elderly, and people with health problems or disabilities also frequently utilize soup kitchens (Morris, 2003).

While providing meals meets an important need, many soup kitchens go beyond providing a hot meal; they often offer a welcoming and supportive atmosphere. Hickory Soup Kitchen, in North Carolina, operates on this vision. Austin Pearce, the director of the soup kitchen, states in an interview, “We ask [that our volunteers] not just peel the potato but provide a positive environment for our clients” (Hickory, 2015). The importance of the volunteers’ contribution to a soup kitchen environment is clear; however, finding the right volunteers can be challenging. Ricky Marais, at SDR, similarly says, “It’s very easy to get people who want to come to help, but very few people want to interact and work with [the homeless] because some of them are smelly, some of them don’t speak well, and some of them are loud” (R. Marais, Liaison Interview, September 18, 2015). Although difficult, encouraging volunteers to interact and form relationships with guests can assist in creating community within a soup kitchen. For example, a client from the Hickory Soup Kitchen (Hickory, 2015) recalls,

“We immediately felt at home because they greeted you with a smile and a hello and a good morning, every day. This is very important in the life of a homeless person because you don’t feel that you have the right to any of this anymore.”

Positive volunteer interaction can help create a “home” environment, and guests appreciate volunteer efforts to do so.

In addition to outside volunteers promoting a welcoming atmosphere, guest involvement can be a powerful driver of community building and establishing a sense of belonging. The Mustard Seed, located in Worcester, Massachusetts, welcomes homeless people, drug and alcohol abusers, low-income families, and others from the surrounding neighborhood. A lot of these guests are regulars. One of the young boys who usually throws a ball around in the yard of the facility says, “My mom was pregnant with me at the Mustard Seed.” Many regulars remember when this boy was born, and have played a role in his upbringing. The guests of the Mustard Seed are in some ways just as important in its continuous operation as the volunteers and donators. They are often the ones who encourage new guests to come and occasionally also turn into steady volunteers. For example, one gentleman, who now runs the setup and cleanup of dinner, started coming to the Mustard Seed as a guest in the early 80’s.

Some soup kitchens also encourage development in other aspects of life for their guests. For example, the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK) in New Jersey started off as just a soup kitchen when its doors opened in 1982 and is now a multidimensional organization with a four-part mission. TASK aims to “provide meals to the hungry people of Trenton, offer services that encourage self-sufficiency and improve quality of life, inform the wider public of the needs of the hungry, and advocate for resources to meet those needs” (Stoolmaccher, Tuchman, & Wise, 2011). To achieve this mission, TASK relies on its volunteers and donations to provide services for its wide diversity of guests. In addition, they offer a multitude of services including an adult education programme, a performing arts programme, social worker assistance, and access to additional resources like mail rooms, telephones, donated clothes, and healthcare.

Hickory Soup Kitchen, The Mustard Seed, and TASK are just a few examples of soup kitchens that are helping to serve meals to the community while providing more than a meal and enhancing the sense of community among guests.


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