Why Soup Kitchens Don’t Have To Be “Soup Kitchens”
When someone hears the reference of “soup kitchen” a stigma is often associated. Images flood one’s head of long lines of poverty standing with bags waiting to get through the door, the jail-like trays, plastic-ware, and low-quality food slopped onto these trays.
Do you know what I think of when I think of soup kitchens? Well I’m going to tell you anyways. I think of the first soup kitchen I volunteered at- it served such a large population of guests, volunteers were always short. The main fixture of the kitchen: a five-star chef from New York City. Other regular volunteers would say, “You should have seen the food before him, now everyone smiles at lunch and dinner.”
After volunteering there for months, and getting to know his story through other volunteers, I asked him the million dollar question: Why?
He explained to me he was sick of serving the rich and he wanted to wake up every day, knowing he was doing something with his life, giving back. He said,
“I grew up poor. I know what it’s like to stand in the line with my mom and get served whatever the donations brought in. And it creates a challenge for me. Come here, let me show you something,”
I remember following him to the pantry, filled with canned goods and donations.
“See this? This is what I have to work from. I work every day to feed 3–400 people for lunch and dinner, creating a new fun flavorful meal from here. Our budget is zero: it’s these donations. It doesn’t mean the food has to suck. What most non-foodies see as pieces of maybe a meal, I see as a wondrous opportunity. I’ve also reached out to local restaurants to donate their unused supplies. They get a tax write-off and we get food. We served lobster yesterday- you missed it.” He smiled and got back to work, directing a team of 20 new volunteers.
A few years later, I would move to another city, again volunteering at a local soup kitchen. In this soup kitchen, guests wouldn’t ever stand in a line. They would sit at a table, surrounded with their friends and family. Bouquets sat as center-pieces. Silverware was wrapped and the table was set with salt and pepper. Serving a population of just over 100 daily for each sitting, a prayer would be administered by the kitchen manager, a volunteer, or a guest who asked.
Plates were served to each guest followed with an array of drink choices. Once finished, volunteers would clear their plates, and offer a desert choice. The serving style was like you were at a restaurant but did not have to pay a bill. Once guests left, tables would be completely cleared, and reset for more guests.
“Just because we are a soup kitchen, doesn’t mean folks should have to serve themselves. We are here to serve and it’s probably the only time of day they get to be waited on, without worry of what the next hour of their life will bring. They can sit down to a warm meal, a warm smile, and maybe forget, for even just a moment, that they don’t know where they will be sleeping tonight, or living tomorrow.”
We need to start changing the stigma, and that starts with you.