How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Mission Possible: How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

The Business of Charity: Starting a Soup Kitchen

August 17,2011, issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper

The Great Recession has greatly increased the number of people who need help finding their next meals. Martin Tuchman, Irwin Stoolmacher, and Peter Wise, three men who are intimately connected with the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK) and authors of "Mission Possible: How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen," have witnessed this increase first-hand. They have seen formerly self-sufficient people turn to TASK because they have few other options in the wake of lost jobs or deeply cut revenues.

Tuchman, Stoolmacher, and Wise will have a signing event for their new book on Saturday, August 20, at 1 p.m. at Classics Used & Rare Books in Trenton. The event is free, as is the electronic version of "Mission Possible." To download a copy, visit www.startasoupkitchen.org. The book, published by Open Door Publications, also is available in paperback for $15 at Amazon.com. For more information on the signing event, visit classicsbooks.wordpress.com.

The three authors have spent several years at the head of TASK. Tuchman, a former transportation executive who sits on nearly a dozen corporate and nonprofit boards and oversees the Tuchman Foundation for Parkinson’s disease research in Kingston, has been a member of the TASK board of trustees since 2004.

Stoolmacher, CEO of Stoolmacher Consulting Group in Lawrenceville, is a longtime business associate of Tuchman’s who has worked with TASK for several years (more on Tuchman and Stoolmacher can be found in the March 18, 2009, issue of U.S. 1).

Wise is the former executive director of TASK, who served from 1998 to 2007. During his tenure TASK greatly expanded the number of meals it served and increased its social support and adult education and computer training services. Prior to his work at TASK he had a 36-year career in aerospace at RCA/GE in Princeton, concentrating on the design, testing and launch of weather, communication, and scientific satellites.

The shift in the types of people who need to visit soup kitchens suggests an emerging need for soup kitchens in some inner suburbs, the authors state. Trenton itself has been hit hard by the recession, to the point at which formerly self-reliant families have been forced to deal with poverty and hunger for the first time.

Such people increasingly turn to soup kitchens, which the authors define as places that prepare sit-down meals, rather than food pantries, which are places that store food that can be taken elsewhere to prepare. The reason, they say, is because many people have lost places that allow them to prepare their own meals. This has made soup kitchens more valuable than ever.

The desire to help by establishing a soup kitchen yourself is noble, but not enough, the authors state. You must understand the immense amount of work and commitment it takes to open and operate a place people rely upon for their very survival.

The first thing you need to do is evaluate your resources — food, facility, funding, and volunteers. Where will your food come from? There are agencies and organizations, such as Feeding America food banks and government agencies, that supply food. There also are supermarkets and restaurants, community gardens, and food drives from religious institutions, schools, and businesses to consider.

But you also need to know what can be donated and what food will have to be purchased? Will there be a cost for the facility in which the meal is prepared and served? Do you need to buy food preparation equipment, kitchen and dining room supplies, a refrigerator, or a freezer?

Also, do you want to solicit funds from government sources? One downside to becoming dependent on government funds, the authors state, is the possibility of funding cuts if there is a down-turn in the economy — which may be the very time when you are seeing the greatest need for your services.

And as for who will work at the kitchen, will you use volunteers or paid staff? Volunteers might be free, but can they be relied upon all the time? And paid staff is reliable, but you need money to pay them, so know where your revenue is coming from.

Before you open your doors, you need to know how the operation will run. Do you have safety and legal issues in place? What will be your days, times, and hours of operation? How many people do you plan to serve initially? Will you be serving on a cafeteria line or providing table service? How many meals a day will you provide?

Location considerations. The old real estate adage of location, location, location holds true for a soup kitchen. But where is the best place to put one?

A soup kitchen should obviously be located close to areas where those living in poverty reside, the authors state. The vast majority of patrons walk to soup kitchens. If a location near an impoverished neighborhood is not possible, the soup kitchen should be close to bus stops or other public transportation hubs. If possible, it is also preferable that the soup kitchen be located near other social support agencies and facilities, such as emergency shelters and health care facilities.

The authors also warn that you should not be surprised to encounter resistance from the neighbors, including the business community. "NIMBYism (not in my backyard) is alive and well in our society," they write. "Most people don’t want to have a soup kitchen in their backyard."

The authors suggest reaching out to the neighbors and explaining the steps you intend to take to head off any negative impact the soup kitchen might have on their lives. "Positive features should be emphasized, for example, more police presence in the neighborhood, improvements to the building facade, improved lighting, and the like," the authors write.

A soup kitchen must always consider safety concerns. The author suggest avoiding locations next to bars and liquor stores or sites that the local police department has identified as having gang activity.

Management and leadership. Leadership starts from the top, so the authors emphasize the need for solid leadership in your soup kitchen.

One way to minimize difficulties at project inception is to create a clear and concise statement of your mission or purpose, the authors state. This statement defines the reason you exist to all concerned — the board, staff, donors, volunteers and the community-at-large. "A clear mission statement can help you to avoid mission-drift, which can divert you from achieving your fundamental goals," they write.

But there is also the matter of change. "It is inevitable that the role of your board will change over time as your organization grows from being largely volunteer-based to having both paid and volunteer staff," the authors write. "During the early years of a soup kitchen a board often will assume certain hands-on duties that become staff responsibilities as you grow."

You should also take care to not expand a board too rapidly. "Err on the side of incrementalism so as to not disrupt the existing board dynamic," they write.

Financial management. A soup kitchen is a business like any other in that it needs a source of income. Most soup kitchens (there are roughly 5,000 of them in the United States) are nonprofits, which means the main source of revenue is gained through fundraising.

"Before you can begin to raise the funds you need to operate or expand your soup kitchen, there are three main financial management tools you will need to put in place," the authors state. You need an accounting system that tracks your income and expenses; a budget that reflects your priorities and projects income and expenses; and a set of policies and procedures that provide for strong financial health.

You need to know all the sources of your money (grants, donations, subsidies), supplies (businesses or individuals that supply furniture or kitchenware), services (consultants, accountants, or other service professionals who work pro bono), and food (food drives, supermarkets, agencies). These donors need to be accounted for tax purposes, theirs and yours. And money needs to be handled carefully to ensure there is no waste.

Starting a soup kitchen is challenging, but, say the authors, can be rewarding. "You will encounter extraordinary patrons who triumph over very difficult circumstances on a daily basis," they write. "You will marvel at their resiliency and their spirit. You will witness the magic that occurs daily. It can help to put your own life in perspective and can make you a better person as you endeavor to do your part to help the less fortunate."