Chapter One: Introduction

Background of the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK)

TASK was started by a small group of dedicated volunteers concerned that there were “people in the city who did not have enough to eat.” Opening day for the soup kitchen was January 13, 1982. Volunteers came on duty at 11 a.m. and at 1 p.m. the doors opened and 60 people were served turkey soup, crackers, a peanut butter sandwich, Jell-O and coffee or a fruit drink.

Today TASK patrons include the elderly, the addicted, the mentally ill, the physically challenged, those recently released from prison, veterans, recent immigrants, families with children, and the working poor. The majority of TASK patrons possess multiple barriers to employment, such as addiction problems and mental illness (some are afflicted with both mental illness and chemical addiction, the so-called MICA population). TASK patrons are a population composed in large part of individuals who need intense social, health, and human care services to re-enter the work force. Chronic hunger and shortages of food at the end of the month are predictable events for many people in Trenton.

The vast majority of TASK patrons are “food-insecure,” to use the current term of choice to describe those who consistently are not able to access enough food to fully meet basic needs at all times due to lack of financial resources. In plain English, those who are food-insecure subsist on barely adequate quantities of food and frequently have to worry about how to get their next meal.

In the last few years TASK has seen more and more of the working poor on their lunch break, wearing their tool belts and paint-splattered overalls, coming to the kitchen to receive a hot meal and save on their food budget. To accommodate the working poor, TASK has developed a card system that allows them to go to the head of the line so they can meet lunch hour time constraints.

Most recently, as a result of the recession, TASK is seeing an increasing number of individuals who are unemployed for the first time in their adult working lives. Included among the newly unemployed are individuals who had volunteered at TASK in better times.

TASK now serves a hot nutritious, multiple course, sit-down meal three times each day. TASK also offers a wide range of programs and services including an Adult Education Program that provides training in literacy, math, computer skills and preparation for the GED for some 90 students with 60 volunteer tutors. It also employs a full-time social worker and offers a robust visual and performing arts program; mail service for the homeless, use of phone, fax, and message machines; distribution of donated clothing, books, hygiene articles; health screening and food stamp prescreening and enrollment, among other services.

The vast majority of TASK’s financial donors and over 2,500 volunteers live in the Mercer County suburban communities surrounding Trenton. TASK is widely considered an effective provider of meals and services and has received six consecutive Charity Navigator four-star ratings (highest) for the fiscally responsible way it executes its mission.

Over the years, those who have led TASK have adhered to the principle of doing what they do best, scrupulously avoiding the temptation to take on duties they have no experience performing – that is to say, they have avoided mission drift.

For example, rather than open new branches of TASK in the other wards of Trenton, TASK delivers hot meals at no-cost to satellite sites at neighborhood churches where volunteers from local congregations serve their neighbors in need. Similarly, when it is cost-effective, TASK has contracted with other charities to provide services at their sites rather than increase staff to provide those services.

In three decades, TASK has evolved from simply serving meals to become a multi-focused organization with a four-part mission:

  • provide meals to the hungry people of Trenton
  • offer services that encourage self-sufficiency and improve quality of life
  • inform the wider public of the needs of the hungry
  • advocate for resources to meet those needs.

Started with a first year budget of $40,000 in 1982, TASK now raises almost $2,000,000 annually without being overly dependent on government funding (less than 5% of TASK funds come from government). Some 25 foundations, dozens of churches, synagogues and mosques, hundreds of businesses and thousands of individuals annually support TASK.

Feeding the Hungry vs. Ending Poverty

It is important to state that there are those who feel that operating soup kitchens is a Band-Aid approach and actually retards the larger effort of reducing poverty. Some observers, like Janet Poppendieck of Hunter College in her book “Sweet Charity”, argue that soup kitchens that only address hunger are “aiming too low” and this “allows government to shirk its duty to promote the common good.”

The authors are of the mind that it is not a matter of either/or but rather, that both efforts are needed. We cannot let people go hungry while we address the factors that result in high levels of poverty. We feel strongly that government at all levels needs to do more to address the root causes of hunger and poverty.

This is the worst of times since the Great Depression for those who are poor or near poor in America. Taken together, these two categories constitute almost a third of all Americans. With rare exception, states, counties and cities are slashing budgets, and the lines at soup kitchens and food pantries are growing longer.

Due to the nation’s high unemployment, the USDA Food Stamp Program (also known as the Supplemental Food Assistance Program – SNAP) has more people enrolled than at any time in its 40-year history (one in seven Americans). Hundreds of thousands of children suffer pangs of hunger as they await their first meal of the day – a free breakfast and/or lunch served at school. More Americans are facing food insecurity for the first time in their lives.

How to Use the Book

This book is meant to provide basic information to individuals and groups who are considering starting or are in the early stages of operating a soup kitchen. Each chapter in this book is composed of two sections: a three to five page overview of the subject followed by a list of tips, guides to some of the more subtle operations of a soup kitchen.

We have attempted to organize this book in a chronological fashion. The book will take you from your very first conceptual considerations to relatively detailed instructions on the most common challenges you will face. In all cases, our essential goal has been to be practical and helpful.

Tales of TASK – The Truck Driver

A truck driver from South Carolina had moved to New Jersey for family reasons and then found himself unable to get a job driving a truck because of the New Jersey requirement to pass a written test. He first came to TASK to eat but was introduced to the TASK Adult Basic Education program where he was tutored in literacy skills until he was able to pass the test for the commercial drivers license (CDL). He is now employed, driving a truck and out of poverty.

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