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Thursday, May 24, 2012

More Soup for Them

Take a minute to imagine eating a single meal over the course of 24 hours.  Or leaving one meal with no concrete idea of where your next will come from.  Or hearing your child cry about being hungry, and responding that there's nothing to eat.  Or having the only time you're indoors be the time you get to sit down in a bare cafeteria with strangers for an hour.  Heck, imagine leaving a meal without the option for a snack if you get hungry before the next one.

Now imagine that you're not just imagining any of that.

Yesterday, I joined a team of people from my company to volunteer for a few hours at a local soup kitchen.  It was a really eye-opening and rewarding experience -- and not just because I was allowed to participate in a food preparation process to feed more than my immediate family.

The soup kitchen is located in Portland, Maine's biggest -- okay, only -- city.  Okay, big town.  Whatever.  It's the place in Maine where the most people live.

It was a muggy, hazy sunny day.  Our company van deposited us on a run-down sidewalk where trash was doing that warm-day festering thing in the gutters and all the buildings looked like they were sweating into their crumbling foundations.  The soup kitchen is a nondescript building that overlooks a Salvation Army thrift store and several run-down apartment buildings.  When we arrived at 10AM, there was a handful of men already in line for lunch, which would not start for another two hours.

A quarter of a mile away, people were grocery shopping at Portland's Trader Joe's and Whole Foods Market.

We were greeted in the kitchen by a group of about a dozen workers.  The group included a small number of full-time kitchen staff, and the rest were volunteers.  A few women who come in regularly to help, and a couple high school students who were doing their community service work.  My colleagues and I were given aprons, told to wash up, and dispersed among various tasks. 

As you can probably imagine, the kitchen was humming with activity.  The size of the kitchen itself is about the size of some people's home kitchens.  Three walls were lined with stainless steel sink basins.  The fourth looked out onto the cafeteria and stationed the buffet from which volunteers could serve food to the patrons.  The center of the kitchen housed two double-ovens and a long stove top and grill.  There was a long stainless steel counter steps away from those cookeries. 

The radio was on, the fans were losing their battle against the humidity, and everyone was cheerful.

I was put on broccoli duty.  I sliced three boxes of broccoli.  The heads got tossed into a bowl with the stalks, which I had to trim to remove the tough outside.  All of those parts were going to be made into a soup for some yet-to-be planned meal.  Anything I discarded was put into a large pot for delivery to a local pig farmer.  When I finished with that, I made iced tea and limeade and set those out in the cafeteria. 

While I was busy with those tasks, other people were cutting hot dogs, grilling cheese sandwiches, making salads, slicing desserts, and preparing bag lunches for people who didn't want to come in and sit down for a meal. 

Just before the doors were to open for lunch, the kitchen manager offered to take me on a tour of the pantry.  She showed me their walk-in freezers, their rows of condiments and canned goods, and the pallets they stack boxed items on.  She also gave me a bird's-eye view of the kitchen's operations.  All the food they use is "rescued" or donated.  While I was overwhelmed by the amount of 32 oz cans and loaves of bread and bottles of ketchup, she told me their supplies were alarmingly low, and confessed she was not sure how they were going to survive the summer.  Perhaps it's because they are serving 48% more meals this year as compared to last; that soup kitchen alone serves almost 1,000 meals a day, and about 32,000 meals a month -- just staggering numbers.

The soup kitchen is open for 3 meals a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.  Their meals accommodate vegetarians and gluten-free eaters, and everything is made with nutrition in mind.  They provide dog and cat food because they had noticed patrons (or "clients," as the kitchen workers call them) would give their own food to their pets instead of eating it themselves.  Every Thursday, they also host a grocery day, where clients are handed a box-top to fill with food laid out on tables set up like aisles in a grocery store.  They do food tastings for things like brie cheese, which many clients have never before tasted.

While the soup kitchen serves a huge variety of food, yesterday the main course was actually soup.  There were three options, plus the offering of a grilled cheese, two different salads, and two different desserts.  I was staffed as a server behind the vegetarian chili.

It was fascinating to see the people who came for lunch, and to see their numbers.  The doors opened at noon and there was an immediate surge of people.  Some were old enough to need a walker, others looked like they were in high school.  There were roughly equal amounts men and women.  There was one young couple with their toddler, and the numerous high chairs and booster seats indicated that families were regularly accommodated.  Some men spoke only Spanish, one spoke only French.  Some had obvious physical handicaps, one looked like an Olympic athlete.  Some dressed in rags, others looked like they had just stepped off a cruise ship.  Some were clearly intoxicated, others looked like they had never touched a beer.  Some refused to make eye contact, others were profusely appreciative.  That line of people blew the doors off every assumption or stereotype you'd associate with people who frequent a soup kitchen/food pantry.

That line also did not dwindle until just before 1PM, when the doors closed.  Nearly 60 minutes of a steady stream of people looking for something to eat.

When the windows to the buffet closed, we started cleaning up the kitchen and the cafeteria.  The staff gently nudged the patrons to finish up and head out.  No one complained.  Everyone cooperated.  One man stopped me on his way out and said he'd see me at "suppah."

The most poignant moment of the day for me was during this exodus.  A young man -- probably 18 -- wearing a long winter coat despite the warm temperatures, finished the meal he'd eaten in silence and headed out the door.  He dragged behind him a flimsy rolling suitcase the size of two pizza boxes stacked end to end.  I realized that I was probably looking at everything this person had in the world, and it weighed less than my 8-month-old son.

Needless to say, I was profoundly touched by this experience.  It reminded me that there is no one face of homelessness or food-neediness. It's not just chemically-addicted panhandlers. It's immigrants trying to make their way.  It's day laborers who eat breakfast and then perform manual labor until the sun sets.  It's people with a job whose salary only covers the rent.   It's children.   And it's more.  Yesterday also taught me how desperately these places, which operate on a shoe-string budget and depend so much on the charity of others, need help from those who can give it.

I came back to the office and fired off an email to HR to see about coordinating food drives here at the office, and I am trying to figure out a system at home for us to make regular food donations.  I'm no hero.  It's so easy to buy an extra box of pasta or set out a carton for other people to put food in.  I don't even want to think about how hard it is to wonder if your kids are going to have lunch tomorrow.

I urge you to consider donating to your local food pantries as well.  Here's a link to a food pantry directory - just enter your state or zip code and you can find one near you.  According to the kitchen manager I spoke with, the items they go through most quickly are coffee, condiments (especially ketchup) and pasta.  The next time you're at the grocery store, why don't you pick up an extra can or bottle or box?  Someone will appreciate it.  A lot.

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