We now come to the very heart of a soup kitchen – the serving of the meal. It is the culmination of all your hard work in finding a location, acquiring food, raising funds, recruiting volunteers, and so forth. Food service at a soup kitchen shares much with food service in any restaurant, except that there is no bill for the diner at the end of the meal. Serving the meal can simultaneously be the most challenging and the most rewarding of all your tasks. What follows are some lessons learned from serving some 2,500,000 plus meals at TASK and Loaves and Fishes.
Logistics of Serving the Meal
You will need to determine your method for serving patrons, that is, whether they will come down a cafeteria line or whether they will be served while seated at tables. If you have enough volunteers, table service is a nice touch for patrons who often are not treated with hospitality elsewhere.
You should assign someone to be a greeter/floor manager whose job it is to help with seating as patrons enter the dining room. This person is the eyes and ears of the soup kitchen and is often the first point of contact if problems arise (this subject will be discussed further in Chapters 12 and 13 – Patron Relations and Safety and Security). The floor manager role could be assigned to paid staff, a skilled volunteer or even the soup kitchen director.
What to Serve
Planning nutritious meals is an important responsibility of a soup kitchen. Low-income populations generally eat inexpensive foods that have low nutritional value and high fat, salt and sugar content. As a result, many patrons at soup kitchens suffer from chronic health conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure. These conditions can be mitigated and lessened through healthy dietary choices.*
Similarly, there are certain foods, such as fresh fruit and produce, that low-income populations seldom eat because they are too costly or not sold at local markets and bodegas. Serving these food items is a good way of providing otherwise unavailable food. Fresh fruits and vegetables are always preferable to canned fruits in heavy syrups or sodium-filled canned vegetables. Fruits and vegetables can be purchased in season locally and then frozen to be served during the winter months.
While ensuring that your meals are nutritious and balanced, you should try to accommodate patron ethnicities and tastes. You also need to be mindful that some patrons, because of cultural and religious customs, will not be able to eat certain types of food, for example, Muslims and Jews do not eat pork. If you are serving pork because you have secured it as a donation, it is good to have a substitute or, alternatively, you could suggest your patrons pass on the main entrée in favor of salad, bread and fruit. Another typical menu variation would be to serve collard greens, a favorite of African-American patrons, with turkey sausage instead of bacon or pork. It is a more healthful way to cater to patron tastes.
You should avoid serving drinks that have high sugar content. Some will argue that it is harmful to offer high-sugar content items to a population at risk of contracting diabetes. Others argue the choice of whether to drink these items belongs with the patrons.
Similarly, you should discuss portion size of your meals. There is a tendency in many restaurants today to serve super-sized meals that can exacerbate the risk of obesity and diabetes. However, for many patrons the soup kitchen meal is their only meal of the day, which would tend to make you want to serve a large portion. TASK policy is to serve an adequate and reasonable portion.
Food Service Policies
You should determine what your policy will be with respect to serving second portions. If you have extra food and can accommodate seconds, that is the preferred approach. However, in some cases the dining room can become overcrowded if you provide seconds so the specifics of your demand and size of your dining room will guide you.
You also need to decide what your policy will be regarding left-over food. There are at least three options: provide take-home trays for patrons, deliver meals to the local overnight shelter or senior citizen facility, or distribute to the volunteers.**
You should determine the threshold age for volunteers in the kitchen. Volunteer assignments should be done strategically (this subject will be treated in more detail in Chapter 11: Volunteer Recruitment and Management).
Make it your policy to stress cleanliness. Trash removal is a part of food service operations. Ensure that someone is responsible for bussing tables and transporting trash bags to a dumpster.
Food Service Tips
TIP #1 – You may want to provide takeout meals for patrons who do not have the time or inclination to sit down for a meal. Takeout meals should be delivered hot, wrapped in aluminum foil (despite the expense of the foil) and consumed within two hours of receipt.
TIP #2 – Halloween and Easter candy donations are typical. You should determine how much of these kinds of donations you want to accept and should provide them to patrons in small amounts since they are saturated with sugar. Also, be mindful that your patrons rarely, if ever, see a dentist.
TIP #3 – Determine whether you want to use silverware and serve meals on plates or whether you should use plastic ware and foam plates. TASK elects to use plastic ware and foam plates. Although this may not be optimum from an environmental standpoint, it reduces the need for intensive dishwashing and minimizes theft. Silverware and porcelain plates can also become a safety issue.
TIP #4 – If resources permit or if you can secure donations, providing table clothes and flowers on each table is a nice touch. Yet another way to provide an at- tractive environment is to display pictures, paintings, and posters on the walls. The art work could even be paintings done by some of your patrons. Also, posters and paintings can be obtained inexpensively at thrift stores.
TIP #5 – As your soup kitchen grows, you will want to count the number of meals served. It is good information for volunteers, for ordering supplies and for marketing purposes. An easy way to do meal counts is to use a hand clicker. Other counting methods include handing out tickets or counting the number of plates used.
* The web formatter would like to note that another good resource on the topic of serving healthy meals is Every Meal Matters: A Guide for Hunger Relief Charities.
** The web formatter would like to note that food acquired from Feeding America food banks cannot be served to volunteers unless they are also in need or they both constitute a very small minority of those eating the food and are seated with and eat with the patrons in order to provide an inclusive atmosphere. This requirement is intended to ensure compliance with Internal Revenue Code Section 170(e)(3), under which the product is donated in order to allow food companies to receive a tax write off. Keep an eye on this site for more articles on 170(e)(3) in the future.