How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

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

Op-ed: Why Are We Growing Soup Kitchens?

By Peter Wise

The latest U.S. Census Bureau data unfortunately confirm that the gap between New Jersey’s “haves”and “have nots” is growing. The Bureau’s 2005 American Community Survey finds that New Jersey remains the nation’s wealthiest state overall, having replaced Connecticut in 2000. Our state’s median income has grown from $55,146 to $61,672 or 12%. Unfortunately, this increase has not been across the board.

Camden had a poverty rate of 44% in 2005, and the lowest median household income level for all small cities (less than X population) in the US, at $18,007 a year. Newark ranked seventh poorest among large cities (greater than Y), with a median income of $30,665. In contrast, Somerset ranked fourth wealthiest among all counties in the U.S. with a median income of $88,532 and Morris ranked fifth at $84,010. Likewise, Hunterdon County had the highest median household income, $ZZZ, for counties in the country with population exceeding 250,000.

According to James Hughes, Dean of the Rutgers University Bloustein School for Planning and Public Policy, the increase in median household incomes of blacks and Hispanics over this period (2000 – 2005?) has been less than half that of Asians and whites. While the income levels of Asians and whites jumped by 19% and 15% respectively, the increase among blacks was only 7% and only 6% among Hispanics. The result is a growing chasm between the haves and the have-nots in New Jersey based on race and class.

As the Director of the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK) for the past nine years, I have witnessed first-hand how the gap between the Have and Have-Nots has widened and how the divisions are across race and class. Our patrons are predominantly black and Hispanic, our volunteers, who generally come 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 am torn between asking for more resources to address the root causes of poverty and asking for more resources to deal with the immediate needs of our patrons. It’s the difference between the urgent and the important. Our clients need so much help – their problems are multi-layered, both systemic and urgent.

To break the cycle of poverty, TASK’s patrons desperately need more high-quality early child care, more decent affordable housing, more job training, more transportation assistance for those who have no way of getting to work, more drug treatment programs for those grappling with addiction and, most importantly, additional educational opportunities at all levels.

Our patrons also need a safe, secure, caring place to come for food and for the other important 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, non-profit, charitable organization that began by feeding sixty hungry people in the basement of a Trenton church in 1982. This fall we served our two millionth meal and in all of 2006 we will have served more than 175,000 meals, which computes to 3,300 meals per week. On August 30th of this year we set a one-day record of serving 1,033 meals. Since we moved into our first permanent home in 1991, the number of meals served annually at TASK has increased by more than 130%!
Over that time, we have outgrown our kitchen and storage facilities and are ready to begin a 3,500 square foot addition to our building. The new addition will dramatically expand and upgrade TASK’s kitchen, adding 1,800 square feet of space and increasing food storage space by 900 square feet. A Multi-Purpose/Art/Conference Room will be added and our existing Computer Room will be enlarged. In addition, new offices will be created and additional space provided for meal service. The facility’s heavily used bathrooms will be completely renovated and upgraded.

Do we express alarm at the increase in the number of people coming to TASK because they are hungry, or are we proud that TASK has, through the generosity of our 4,000 annual contributors, been able to meet the increasing demand for our services? Actually, it’s not either/or, it’s both/and. We do both.

We acknowledge that the growth in the number of meals served at TASK is not a welcome development, but rather an unfortunate consequence of the growing societal chasm between the rich and the poor. We further acknowledge that as a matter of the common good, we have no choice but to provide a place to sit down and eat for those who are hungry in Trenton. However, our responsibility does not end there. We must also address the root causes of poverty.

A significant portion of TASK’s patron population is the working poor coming to TASK on their lunch hour. In fact, we provide express meal service for them so that they are able to get back to work within their lunch hour. They are coming to TASK because they are having a difficult time making ends meet on low-paying jobs. Clearly something is wrong with the picture of working folks having to come to a soup kitchen to make ends meet.

At a time when New Jersey is attempting to revamp its system of financing government services and reduce property taxes, the needs of the neediest among us are sometimes lost in the shuffle. We need to acknowledge that in a time when Trenton has lost much of its manufacturing base, one of its few growth areas is patronage at the soup kitchen. However, it is not in our economic self-interest to be building a permanent underclass. We need to include effective, strategic policies to lift people out of poverty. Until that time when we, as a state with many, many resources, determine how best to prevent the growth of those living in poverty, TASK will continue to try to meet the growing numbers of those who come to our door.