How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

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

Addressing SNAP Cuts: 21st Century Soup Kitchen

One in six – that’s how many Americans do not have enough to eat and face the pain and indignity of hunger on a regular basis. Some 43 million Americans are described as “food insecure”, the term used to describe people who suffer from chronic hunger. These numbers include over thirteen million hungry children.  They live in our cities, our suburbs and our rural areas.

Those experiencing chronic hunger are a very diverse group - white and black, Asian and Latino, working and non-working, citizens and those wanting to be citizens. Increasingly they are senior citizen over age sixty.  The number of hungry seniors has more than doubled since 2001.  Since the start of the recession in 2007, that number has increased by 65%. Today more than 2.1 million older Americans face the threat of hunger (15.8 percent of all seniors over 60 and 3.1 percent of the total population). Those who are hungry are our neighbors.

A growing portion of the hungry are former middle class Americans unexpectedly pushed into the ranks of the poor by the recession and who have not be able to find comparable paying jobs as the economy has rebounded.  In addition, massive declines in our manufacturing sector due to globalization and automation have eliminated millions of living wage jobs in this country.

These people, the “new poor”, have joined the historically economically disadvantaged, the elderly, the homeless, the physically disabled, the mentally ill and those suffering from addictions to create a challenge of extraordinary proportions.

So, what are we to do with all this apparent misery in America? We are the nation that pulled ourselves out of the Great Depression and, following World War II, helped rebuild Europe through the Marshall Plan. Historically we have prided ourselves on our ingenuity and our ability to meet challenges head-on.

As a result of the paralysis and divisiveness in Washington, affirmative steps are not being taken to reduce poverty.  Evidence-based solutions such as expanding access to high quality preschool, making higher education more accessible, providing more affordable housing, expanding job training, ensuring living wage jobs, and employing people to rebuild our aging infrastructure are not currently in the legislative pipeline or on the horizon for the foreseeable future.

Instead of expanding our efforts to reduce hunger, we are taking steps that will result in it skyrocketing.  The talk is of substantial cuts to our nation’s most effective anti-hunger program SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as the Food Stamp program).  The Trump administration proposal would convert it to a block grant program and slash funding by $150 billion over 10 years.  This roughly 20% cut in SNAP would result in millions of low-income families no longer receiving food assistance.

Currently, roughly 14 percent of Americans participate in SNAP (43.6 million individuals).  Forty percent of the households receiving SNAP benefits have at least one working person and 69 percent of them have children. SNAP provides $526 a month to a family of three with no other income, or $6,312 annually.

So given the apparent absence of political will and with both the upper and the middle class feeling that they are already overtaxed, it is hard to see government addressing hunger in any significant way in the foreseeable future. 

Therefore, we are forced to turn to a 21st century version of an old solution – nonprofit soup kitchens.  Building more soup kitchens is obviously only treating the symptoms of poverty and critics say it is merely a band-aid approach to the problem. In part we agree, but when you have an open wound which is bleeding, you must stop the bleeding. 

Further, we are not suggesting the stereotypical soup kitchen of your grandparent’s generation – ladling out soup from large, steaming pots to long lines of unfortunate people. Rather, we envision the creation of a nation-wide network of what would be more like community centers, central hubs of services for those living in need.

A good example of this type of service is the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK) located in New Jersey’s capital city. Trenton was once a proud industrial town producing ceramics and steel for use across the nation, but with migration of manufacturing first to the U.S. south and then overseas, Trenton began its downward slide into hard times. Trenton has been losing population for the last five decades and is now grappling with many of the problems that inner cities face across our nation.

In the center of this gritty landscape, TASK has been operating since 1982 with a three-fold mission: to serve ample, nutritious meals, to help patrons to lives of self-sufficiency, and to improve quality of life for all who come through its doors. 
Annually TASK provides more than 300,000 meals a year to people who live in and around Trenton.  TASK has added 14 partner satellite locations to feed people who live too far to walk to TASK and now enrolls more than 900 school children who don’t have enough to eat on the weekend in the Send Hunger Packing Program a partnership with the local food bank and 23 area schools.

Feeding people is only the first step. Many who come to TASK have been traumatized by their difficult lives and see little hope for a brighter future. So in addition to meal service, TASK has a robust all volunteer adult education program with tutoring in basic math, literacy, computer training and preparation for the high school equivalency test.

TASK also provides case management services, as well as food, hygiene-product, clothing, and holiday giveaways and mail delivery for those without permanent address, birthday celebrations, and the list goes on. All programs are free and open to everyone, no questions asked.  The important common theme is that people feel that someone cares about them.

Yet another wonderful part of TASK is its creative arts program - a vibrant mix of poetry and story writing, music, painting, and photography - again an all volunteer operation. Art shows and musical performances at outside venues are now commonplace as well as sales of works of art.

TASK is a non-religious, non-sectarian 501(c) 3 nonprofit that receives less than three percent of its funding from government. Its support comes from a very diverse donor base in the capital city region. It is an efficient and sustainable organization that for nine out of the last ten years has earned a four-star rating from Charity Navigator, the country’s leading independent evaluator of nonprofits.  This past year TASK was the only charity in New Jersey to earn a perfect 100 per cent rating by Charity Navigator based on the strength of its finances, its governance practices and its transparency.   For further information on TASK go to www.trentonsoupkitchen.org

We believe that nonprofit soup kitchens such as TASK, while obviously not the ultimate solution to poverty and hunger in America, are an appropriate response to the unwillingness of leaders to address growing hunger in America.

Until our society develops the political will to effectively address growing hunger in our country, we encourage others to seriously consider starting central hubs of service all across America to help those in need avoid the pain and indignity of chronic hunger.