How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

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

Big problems require big thinking

I really like a quote by William Butler Yeats that reads: "Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking." Yeats is making the point that timing is crucial. 

You need to carpe diem when contemplating getting involved - don't wait too long to get on board. Those willing to embrace change early on, like early money in a political campaign, can be the yeast or catalyst that sparks change.

The quote embraces the notion that each of us needs to do our part in order to bring about change. It reminds me of a memorable quote by the legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizen can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

Bringing about transformative change on big problems requires timing and the ability to balance the short- and the long-term. As a nation, one of the primary reasons we fail to address difficult problems is that we tend to focus solely on the symptoms of problems, not the underlying cause of them.

An example of this is the way we address hunger. With the number of those who are hungry growing, especially among the working poor, our community has mobilized and established various volunteer-based nonprofit programs that provide thousands of folks who are hungry with nutritious meals.

In our community, exemplary programs like the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK) and the Mercer Street Friends Food Bank provide hundreds of thousands of meals and millions of pounds of food annually to those who are hungry.  

While TASK offers programs that provide clients with the opportunity to move toward self-sufficiency, their primary role is to feed those who are hungry, not eliminate poverty and injustice, of which hunger is one of many symptoms.

TASK's highly-respected Executive Director Dennis Micai, in a recent Times article titled "The American Dream has faded: See the faces of the N.J. Working Poor," said, "Something's wrong in the system. He said when he took over (TASK) in 2007, his goal was that there would come a time when the soup kitchen would no longer be needed – something, he acknowledged, he has failed at."

Instead, TASK has grown exponentially over the past eight years to include 10 satellite sites and this year will serve 250,000 meals.  

While I empathetically, understand what Dennis was saying, it is important to clarify that eliminating poverty is not TASK's mission. It has met its more limited, but very important purpose, of reducing the number of individuals in our community who do not have enough to eat – a symptom of poverty that has devastating health and educational consequences.

The only way that poverty in Trenton and America will be addressed is if we adopt a long-term quarter-century macro-perspective and make it our number one priority. It cannot be solved in the next fiscal quarter or fiscal year. We need to continue to ameliorate the most devastating symptoms while simultaneously addressing its underlying causes.  

Our nation's leaders need to take a page from the book of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) if they are going to address poverty and injustice in our nation.

This past year Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, the brilliant innovative head of our nation's largest health-centered philanthropy, decided to refocus the foundation's efforts from addressing discreet health care problems such as smoking and obesity, to a broader more ambitious visionary effort to build from the ground up a "culture of health" in America.  

According to the foundation a "culture of health" would be a place in which "good health flourishes across geographic, demographic and social sectors; where best health possible is valued by our entire society; individuals and families have the means and the opportunity to make choices that lead to the healthiest lives possible; business, government, individuals, and organizations work together to build healthy communities and lifestyles; no one is excluded; health care is efficient and equitable; the economy is less burdened by excessive and unwarranted health care spending; keeping everyone as healthy as possible guides public and private decision making; and Americans understand that we are all in this together."  

It would be, according to the RWJF, "a culture that empowers everyone to live the healthiest lives they can have" and "a culture where health becomes a part of everything we do, and the healthy choice becomes the easy choice."    

America needs an equally audacious long-term focused effort to promote a "culture of justice" in our nation and build a national movement to achieving it. Just imagine for one brief shining moment a culture that empowered each of us to be everything we are capable of being.  

Creating a "culture of justice" would require bringing the resources of government; the private sector and America's charities together in a long-term coordinated effort to addressing inequality by created a continuum of interrelated educational, health care, job training and housing opportunities for millions of Americans. Only through thinking big is there any likelihood that we will be able to resurrect the American dream for millions for whom there is a lack of opportunity.