How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

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

Today hunger isn’t just a “poor person” or an “inner city” issue

New Jersey Newsroom
By Irwin Stoolmacher

Although it was announced in September 2010 that the Great Recession officially ended in June 2009, tens of millions of Americans continue to suffer the pain and indignity of hunger. More than 37 million Americans, including 17 million children, are hungry or are at risk of hunger.

Some 50 million Americans are on Medicaid, the federal-state program aimed principally at the poor; over 42 million Americans are receiving food stamps (including one in four children); almost 10 million Americans are collecting unemployment insurance and over four million people are on welfare. Some 44 million Americans - 14 percent of the population - fell into official poverty in 2009, earning less than $21,954 per year for a family of four.

While the nation’s unemployment rate is hovering around nine percent, the combined unemployment and under-employment rate is running around 16 percent. This figure includes those who have given up looking for a job and those who have taken part-time jobs that pay significantly below their previous salary. A Pew Economic Policy Group study reported that 23 percent of the unemployed had been jobless for a year or more - the highest rate since World War II. The U.S. Department of Agriculture found that the number of Americans living in households without consistent access to adequate food is at an all-time high.

The “new needy” no longer reside primarily in our nation’s inner cities. Over the last decade there has been a marked migration pattern of poverty out from the cities into the near-in suburbs, as documented by the Brooking Institute and others. A recent New York Times article entitled “Outside of Cleveland, Snapshots of Poverty’s Surge in the Suburbs,” reported that “the poor population in America’s suburbs – long a symbol of a stable and prosperous American middle class – rose by more than half after 2000, forcing suburban communities across the country to re-evaluate their identities and how they serve their populations. The increase in the suburbs was 53 percent, compared with 26 percent in cities.”

The New York Times indicated that “Nearly 60 percent of Cleveland’s poor, once concentrated in its urban core, now lives in its suburbs. Poverty is new in Parma Heights, a quiet suburb of cul-de-sacs and clipped lawns, and asking for help can be hard.” The Parma Heights Food Pantry is now helping 260 families a month, up from several dozen in 2006. Cleveland is not the only city that is seeing poverty extend beyond its borders. The same New York Times article reported that Colorado Springs and Greensboro, North Carolina, Cape Coral, Florida, and Riverside, California had also seen a dramatic rise in poverty in their suburbs.

The surge in poverty rates in the suburbs has also reared its ugly head in New Jersey where the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, which has served meals to Trenton’s poor for the past twenty-nine years, is for the first time opening a satellite feeding site outside of Trenton in partnership with Rise: A Community Service Partnership (formerly Community Action Service Center) at the First United Methodist Church of Hightstown, in one of Mercer County’s suburban communities. Rise also operates a year-round food pantry in Hightstown in partnership with St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church.

The combination of the newly needy and the traditional needy - the chronically poor, the physically challenged, the mentally ill, those suffering from substance abuse - is severely taxing the capacity of our nation’s hunger relief organizations. Food Banks have much less variety of foods, pantries are running out of food in mid-month, and the lines at soup kitchens are growing.

It is with this need in mind that I along with Martin Tuchman and Peter Wise recently completed a book entitled Mission Possible: How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen, based on our involvement with the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen. The goal of the book is to be helpful to those who would like to do something about acute hunger in their community and to spur the development of new soup kitchens wherever they are needed.

Mission Possible: How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen provides basic information to individuals and religious groups who want to start or expand an existing who are in the early stages of operating a soup kitchen. The book provides insight on how to raise funds, acquire food, recruit volunteers and much more.

Starting a soup kitchen is difficult, but as the book points out it is a “mission possible.” Dealing with patrons who struggle every day to survive can be daunting. Coordinating and directing volunteers can also be challenging. However, the rewards of taking on this mission are both enormous and long-lasting. You will encounter extraordinary patrons who triumph over very difficult circumstances on a daily basis. You will marvel as their resiliency and their indomitable spirit. You will bear witness to the magic that occurs daily at places like the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen. It can help to put your own life in perspective and can make you a better person as you endeavor to do your part to help the less fortunate.