How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

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

The Building That Should Not Be Expanding

Times of Trenton
By Peter Wise

The latest U.S. Census Bureau data unfortunately confirm that the gap between the “Haves” and “Have-Nots” is growing in New Jersey. The Bureau’s 2005 American Community Survey also finds that New Jersey is now the nation’s wealthiest state. Over the last five years our state’s median household income has grown from $55,146 to $61,672 or 12%. Unfortunately, this increase is far from equally shared.

According to James Hughes, Dean of the Rutgers University Bloustein School for Planning and Public Policy, the increase in median income of black and Hispanic households over this period has been less than half that of Asian and white households. While the incomes of Asians and whites jumped by approximately 17%, the increase for blacks and Hispanics was only approximately 7%. The result is a growing chasm between the Haves and the Have-Nots in New Jersey based on race and class.

As Director of the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK) for over eight years, I have witnessed first-hand these racial and class divisions. Our patrons are predominantly black and Hispanic; our volunteers, generally from Mercer County’s suburbs, are predominantly white. Those who come to TASK include the homeless, the elderly, the mentally ill, the addicted, the physically challenged, families with children, veterans and the working poor. TASK’s patron population is the face of poverty in New Jersey.

On a daily basis, I have been faced with the dual challenge of seeking resources to deal with the immediate needs of our patrons and seeking resources to address the root causes of poverty. It’s the difference between the urgent and the important. To break the cycle of poverty, TASK patrons desperately need more high-quality child care, more decent affordable housing, more job training, more transportation assistance to their jobs, more addiction treatment and mental health programs, and additional educational opportunities at all levels.

Our patrons also need a safe and secure place to come for food and for the other services that TASK provides. For many, TASK is the only “safe haven” amidst the chaos that is their lives.

TASK is a private, non-religious, non-sectarian, charitable organization that began by serving sixty hungry people in the basement of a Trenton church in 1982. In the fall of 2005 we served our two millionth meal, and by the end of this year we will serve over 175,000 meals. That over 3,300 meals per week. On August 30th of this year we set a one-day record by serving 1,033 meals!

In addition to meal service, we also provide an Adult Education Program teaching adults literacy, basic math and preparation for the GED exam. We have approximately 85 students and 55 volunteer tutors who come to TASK every week. We offer a heavily used computer skills course with certificates presented to those who complete our six-week Microsoft Office program. Our two full-time social workers labor under saturated caseloads and have since program inception in 2003.

Because of the unrelenting demand for our services, we find we must expand our present facility. Actually, it’s not the first such expansion. The present TASK building was constructed in 1991 and contained 6,000 square feet. It was only four years later, in 1995, that TASK found it necessary to add another 1,000 square feet. Now our plan is to further expand by 3,500 square feet. The new addition will grow the kitchen by 1,800 square feet and food storage space by 900 square feet. The balance of the expansion will provide a much-needed multi-purpose room and an increase in the dining area.

We are grateful that, through the generosity of our 4,000 annual donors, we have been able to meet the increasing demand for our services. But it is also sad to witness the increase in demand in this wealthiest state in the country.

The growth in the number of meals served at TASK is an unfortunate consequence of the growing societal chasm between rich and poor. As a matter of compassion and for the common good, we have no choice but to provide a place to eat for those who suffer the pain and indignity of hunger in our capital city. However, our societal responsibility does not end there. We must also address the root causes of poverty and provide enabling programs such as those enumerated above.

At a time when New Jersey is attempting to revamp its system of financing government services and seeking to reduce property taxes, there is great danger that the needs of the neediest will be lost in the shuffle. The reality is that, over the years, Trenton has lost much of its manufacturing base and now one of its growth areas is patronage at the soup kitchen. It is not in our regional economic self-interest to be building a permanent underclass. We need to craft and implement policies to lift people out of poverty. Until that time when New Jersey, with so many resources, determines how best to reduce poverty, TASK will try to meet the needs of those who come to our ever-expanding soup kitchen.