How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

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

Poverty Presentation for Rutgers University

By Peter Wise

  • Poverty in America – 1 in 5 kids live in poverty in America, 2010 US census says 1 out of 2 people in US live in poverty or are classified as low income – that’s 146M (48%) people, up 4M since 2009 (97M low income – 100-200% of Federal Poverty level, 49M in poverty)! Anyone know the federal poverty level is for a family of four? $22,350/yr.
  • After WWII we had the GI Bill, the middle class blossomed and many had good, living wage jobs in the manufacturing sector. Then, starting in the 1960’s or thereabouts, manufacturing jobs started migrating south to non-union (so-called right to work states ) lower wage areas, then moved offshore as we see today with China, India, and South America, Bangladesh, etc. We call it globalization. So loss of living wage jobs for those with only high school or perhaps no high school diploma, the men can’t support their families, very shame-based situation; family tensions, perhaps domestic abuse and alcohol abuse and loss of intact families. Welcome to the post-industrial era in America.
  • In Trenton, white flight and depopulation – peaked at 135,000 in 1950’s, and now continuing a downward slope at 80,000, despite the influx of many Central/South American immigrants into South Ward.
  • So, we have concentrated poverty and what are the career options for kids – welfare, drugs, gangs, flipping burgers – how many times does a 10 year old have to get beaten up because he doesn’t belong to a gang before he joins a gang? It’s a very rational decision at that point. Had I been faced with that dilemma I would have joined the gang for survival. But that’s the slippery slope that eventually points to prison.
  • Lack of good role models, absentee fathers, school drop-out rates greater than 50%, unsafe neighborhoods, often chaotic households, mothers not being responsible, children raising children.
  • Boys act out to acquire their manliness and pride; girls are looking for someone to love and love them back – they might get pregnant to love the baby and the baby is like your little doll – you can love it and it depends on you.
  • Think of the 10 year-old negotiating his way home through the mean streets to an apartment with maybe multiple families living in it, no much in the frig, maybe Mom is out of it; another draw to the gang – they are your friends and family.
  • This is not a land of equal opportunity – there is not a level playing field - how is it equal when the 10 year-old comes home to an apartment that may not have reliable heat and electricity and this kid has to compete for a job with kids who live elsewhere who have computers in their bedrooms?
  • I suggest that many of these children are suffering PTSD because of the lack of safety and security and nurturing that we all need on a very basic level. And the cycle continues as they grow up.

How to Reduce Poverty

  • In Trenton - three legged stool – need for affordable housing, decay of beautiful housing stock and people standing on the street corner with no work. Train them - incentivize them to become electricians, bricklayers, carpenters, plumbers. They rehabilitate the housing stock and voila! we have affordable housing for people.
  • Do it with public/private partnerships.
  • Nationally, take it to scale – infrastructure, roads, bridges, tunnels, fiber optic cable, alternative energy sources, electrical grid.
  • Get America back to work – CCC/WPA/ National Recovery Act – we did it in the 1930’s, we did it again after WWII - we helped rebuild Europe - Marshall Plan.
  • Create good paying in America so people can earn a living and then pay taxes.
  • Other things needed – Better drug treatment programs – six months, residential programs – cheaper than building prisons; better mental health treatment programs; for depopulated cities – urban gardens, and incentivize food companies to come to the cities so we don’t have food deserts. I could go on.

More about TASK

  • A private, non-sectarian, nonprofit, 501 (c) 3, tax exempt org; since 1982 from humble beginnings, kicked out of 1st UMC, business people upset, TASK itself homeless, serving sandwiches out of the back of station wagons parked at an open corner lot in Trenton, finally raised $600K in 1991 to build their own place – where? Back street, next to the dog pound, animal shelter. But we are where we need to be with respect to those living in poverty in the North Ward.
  • Now the largest public feeding place in the Trenton region – on the way to 200,000 per year – for-profit restaurateurs would kill for those numbers.
  • Mission Statement - serve nutritious meals, help our patrons (others call them clients, consumers, guests) to lead lives of self-sufficiency and improved quality of life; advocacy (voice for the voiceless in our society). Testify before State Legislative Committee Hearings, write op-ed pieces, give talks.
  • Two stories about the Adult Ed program – 1. South Carolina truck driver 2. Guy with brother in prison.
  • All this leads to need for Strategic Plan – road map for how to implement the mission statement, visioning where do we want to be in 3 or 5 years?
  • What specific goals should we have and what specific actions do we need to take to meet those goals to achieve the vision? Watch out for Mission Creep.
  • Empathy – not specifically in the Mission Statement but very important to me was to have what could be called a dining room of hospitality – an open door policy, no questions asked, treat people with dignity, cordiality and respect. We expect that in a restaurant don’t we? Should we do less in a soup kitchen?
  • These folks live lives that are difficult enough; in the outside world they get ignored or worse, treated with hostility, so the soup kitchen becomes a sanctuary, a place of safety, a place for community.
  • Simple examples – make eye contact, but that’s not what they teach in learning street-smart, is it? Beyond eye contact, smile – it’s the most powerful tool in your toolbox and costs you nothing; try to learn first names and use them!
  • Another simple thing – we serve cafeteria style and we let people choose their own desert – you wouldn’t like it in a restaurant if the waiter just put something in front of you without giving you a choice, right?
  • Another example - this is one of Fran’s favorites – many of our patrons are working – and at jobs I could not do for one hour; roofing, spackling, certain kinds of hard labor, walk 20 minutes from their job site to TASK, they can’t afford to wait 15 minutes for us to get to their table and then eat and then walk 20 minutes back to their job – they just blew their lunch hour and will get fired their first day – so we provide Worker Express Passes. Give me some evidence that you are working (note from the supervisor or teacher if you are in a program) and we’ll cut you a card, you flash the card, we send you to the head of the line – get your meal fast. We’ll even wrap it for you if you really have to run.
  • Biggest challenges – not the drug addicted, alcoholic, mentally-ill homeless person, but Board – if you think having one boss is tough, try 20; 20 different egos and agendas, some of whom want to micro-manage you; over the nine years I worked it out, but I wish I had been more politically savvy from the start.
  • Fundraising – requires Marketing and Public Relations
    • Become a media hound – get to know the publisher, editor, reporters, photographers at the local papers, answer their calls promptly – they are probably on deadline; local radio and TV spots, brochures, newsletters.
    • Diversified funding base – don’t rely on govt; new donor acquisition
    • 70,000 pieces to be mailed from Trenton right after 9/11; Anthrax scare
    • Talk to whatever group asks you – schools, colleges, corporation brown –bag lunches, govt. workers, churches, synagogues, civic organizations
    • The question you almost invariably get from civic groups – does everyone who comes to the soup kitchen really need free food? Are you being ripped-off? My answer – I don’t spend much time worrying about that because, think about it, would you come to a soup kitchen if you could eat elsewhere? We try to make a welcoming place but you might wind up sitting next to or across from someone who is intoxicated, mentally ill.
  • Self care – there is a real danger of trying to do too much in the midst of such need; what do you do when you are surrounded with sadness and oftentimes, evidence of violence in the lives your patrons are living? Remember when you look into the abyss, the abyss looks back at you - the real need to check your emotional dip-stick; don’t get heroic; try to delegate what you can, take time for yourself – it’s good not to live too close to work – gives you time to decompress before you walk in the door at home. A supportive spouse and friends is really important.

Specific things I learned at TASK

1. Being poor can happen to anyone; you can be middle class or even upper class and experience catastrophic illness, divorce, job loss.

  • I have many things that were given to me. If I hadn’t been born when I was, where I was, to the parents I was,
  • I could be in poverty myself.
  • I didn’t get to choose being white, male, tall, deep voice, father who was an Ivy League graduate.
  • If I were growing up in the same circumstances as some of the kids growing up in the inner city, I’d be coming to the soup kitchen – but not as an employee or volunteer but as a patron.

2. Helping others is very rewarding – and maybe a good way to help yourself; to help reduce human suffering can be very healing to yourself.

3. Listening (active and engaged) is hard work – but very important – Astro example – takes humility.

4. Self Care is important – see major challenges above.


The book I co-authored – Mission Possible: How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen - 14 chapters on how to start or expand a soup kitchen – only three of the 14 chapters are about food – board management, staff management, volunteer management, financial management, safety and security.

Original intent was to replicate TASK across the nation, but when you go on the World Wide Web (www), it’s world-wide!

Website www.startasoupkitchen.org, You can download the book free – PDF download in Adobe. You can buy hard copies through Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

We have Google Analytics - last month we had 44 states, 126 countries, 4,000 visitors around the world; hundreds of downloads; response page – last question was from a guy in South Africa wondering how to deal with his local government. A challenge for me to tell someone in South Africa how to deal with his local, perhaps corrupt, government.

And, to finish, just as I typed this final bullet at midnight Saturday night, I heard that little sound that computers make when a new email has just been delivered. It was a response via the book web site from a Social Worker in Rhode Island asking the best way to expand her mission from an overnight shelter to include a meal program. So there I was typing - not just about the soup kitchen, not just about the book, not just about the web site, but about a response from South Africa when another response comes in! Sent chills up my back!