How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

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

THE WEALTHIEST STATE IN THE NATION: THE VIEW FROM THE SOUP KITCHEN

By Peter Wise

New Jersey is now officially the wealthiest state in the nation, according to United States Census 2000. On a per household income basis, we’ve passed Connecticut. How has this desirable situation affected the level of poverty? Here are some indicators: between 1990 and 2000, the census data shows that poverty in our capital city of Trenton increased 16 percent. This was during the same period we were achieving our wealthiest state status. More recently, between January 2001 and January 2002, requests at the state level for emergency housing for the desperately poor grew by 47 percent. These negative trends exist against a national backdrop of one child in six living in poverty in this wealthiest country in the world. If we were able to put all of our poor kids in one place, they would fill all five boroughs and the surrounding metropolitan area of New York City - approximately 12 million children living in poverty.

From my vantage point at the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK), the effects of growing poverty are dramatically obvious. In 2001, we served about 120,000 meals to those living in poverty in the city’s North Ward. We continued at this average of 10,000 meals per month until June of this year, when the meal count climbed above 12,000, then climbed again to a record 14,000 in July, where it has essentially remained. Less than one third of this increase is attributable to the larger number of children who came to TASK during the summer, and to a fourth evening meal we added to our schedule. And summer is now over, and we served over 14,000 meals in October – that’s over 3,000 meals per week. We are heading for a meal count between 140,000 and 150,000 for calendar 2002 - an increase of 20,000 to 30,000 soup kitchen meals in the capital city of the wealthiest state in the nation.

What is going on here? Certainly, the economic downturn plays a part. Those working on the margins are the first to be let go when companies retrench. But even back in the booming 90’s, poverty was on the rise and the soup kitchen lines were growing.

Another clue to the growing poverty in our capital city lies in the circumstances of those who come to TASK. We serve the elderly, people whose Social Security benefits do not provide sufficient income. We serve the mentally ill and those who suffer from addiction. We serve the mentally and physically challenged. People come to TASK in wheel chairs, on crutches, and straight from the hospital with their wristbands still in place. We serve those with personality disorders, victims of chronic life trauma, and sometimes profoundly lacking in communication and social skills. We serve adults who cannot read or write. We serve the homeless, who sleep in shelters, abandoned buildings and vehicles.

And then there are the children. In the summer, TASK experiences some of its busiest days. Kids who normally rely on subsidized school lunches — for which fully 85 percent of Trenton’s children qualify — are not in school. It’s yet another generation raised in circumstances that almost guarantee some will join parents and grandparents at the soup kitchen year round.

Another sign of something terribly awry in our society is the number of actual jobholders who eat at TASK. Indeed, we have created an express meal system for those on lunch break. People tell me this is a good idea. But how crazy is it that we are so clever as to provide expedited service at a soup kitchen for those who are working? And in the wealthiest state in the country. These are people — many former recipients of public assistance — who landed jobs only to find that they cannot earn enough to meet life’s basic requirements. Off welfare, they are not out of poverty.

We can do better as a society. It is in our economic interest to convert poverty stricken social service consumers into goods-and-service providers. It is also, I submit, in our civic, moral and spiritual interest not to have such abject poverty in our midst. Here are some suggestions for change:

  • Provide more State Section 8 rental vouchers. Current waiting lists are sometimes measured in years.
  • Provide state wage subsidies or raise the minimum wage.
  • Significantly expand training programs in the skilled trades. Renovate abandoned and decaying houses; use the Section 8 vouchers to populate the housing.
  • Increase school-based computer and information technology training. How do we expect children, sometimes living two or three families to a two-bedroom apartment, often without even a phone, to compete with other students with computers in their bedrooms?
  • Significantly expand intensive case management. Provide holistic, wrap-around social services to people who travel (usually by foot) to separate agencies.
  • Significantly expand addiction treatment. Provide long-term (six months minimum), in-patient treatment with life skills and job skills training and support.
  • Create neighborhood community centers for after-school mentoring, recreational activities, and support groups. This will help to mitigate what are often weak family structures and insufficient role models.

To the average citizen, the problems of poverty may seem overwhelming. What can you do as an individual? There are many ways to help. Let your elected representatives know you are unhappy with the status quo. Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper. In your workplace, service club or faith-based organization, raise economic justice as a topic of discussion. Invite a nonprofit agency head to speak to your group. Organize a fundraiser or food drive.

Finally, a powerful way to begin to transform society is to volunteer at one of the many nonprofit agencies that serve those in poverty. Transformation of society is done one heart, one soul at a time. While you alone may not change society, there is one thing I guarantee will change: your perspective on poverty in New Jersey, the wealthiest state in the United States.