Chapter Two: Getting Started

This chapter is primarily directed towards soup kitchen start-up projects, but much of the information and guidance is also applicable to existing soup kitchens or food pantries looking to expand their services.

There are some clearly defined initial actions:

  • Ascertain the services provided by other agencies
    and nonprofits
  • Evaluate your resources – food, facility, funding,
    and volunteers
  • Determine whether your service is religiously based
  • Define the scope of your mission
  • Determine whether you should incorporate as a
  • Develop basic fundamental food service policies

Determination of Services Provided by Other Agencies

You should contact social service agencies, food pantries or the local food bank, religious leaders and government officials to determine the extent to which the hunger problem is being addressed and where there may be gaps in service. You do not want to duplicate what is already being provided.

It is strongly suggested that you and your group visit soup kitchens outside your area, if available, to help you become familiar with the resources needed, and the common practices and challenges you will face.

Realistic Analysis of Start-up Resources

Consider and think about your sources of food. These include Feeding America food banks, organizations that distribute federal commodities, local supermarkets and restaurants, community gardens, gleaning projects, food drives from religious institutions, schools, and businesses. What can be donated and what food will have to be purchased?

Will there be a cost for the facility in which the meal is prepared and served? Do you need to buy food preparation equipment, kitchen and dining room supplies, a refrigerator or a freezer?

Do you want to solicit funds and/or food from government sources? One downside to becoming dependent on government funds is the possibility of funding cuts if there is a down-turn in the economy (which may be the very time when you are seeing the greatest need for your services). This is the reason there is a real advantage to having a diversified funding base (see Chapter 9).

How many volunteers will you need? Will there be paid staff? What are the particulars of your facility? Is your project an outgrowth of a group with a cadre of volunteers? Chapter 11 will provide further details on volunteer recruitment and management, but the main consideration at this point is how many volunteers you need to prepare and serve the meal and do clean-up afterwards. You should also consider any specific skills needed such as cooking, legal assistance and experience in dealing with low-income populations. Similarly, does anyone in your group have food safety training and certification? Does anyone have a nutritional and/or dietician background? Does anyone have an explicit link to the food industry?

A major consideration is the facility for preparing and serving your meal. Chapter 3 will provide guidance relative to your kitchen and dining room. But at this point you must determine if you will be housed in an existing building or if you will need to build. Does the facility come free or are rental funds required?

Religious vs. Non-Religious

Will you operate from a religious perspective or provide secular service? If you want to receive government food commodities and/or become a member of the local food bank, meals must be served to all who come to the soup kitchen without regard to religious preference and worshiping cannot be a condition for receiving a meal.

In addition, some patrons may not be comfortable in an overtly religious setting, for example, Hispanic patrons in a Protestant church or African-Americans in a historically white church (or whites in a historically African-American church).

As you begin to form your project, another approach to consider is that of operating as an interfaith organization. By involving many different congregations you will have greater access to both volunteers and funding.

Define the Scope of Your Mission

After determining the unmet emergency food needs in the community and developing an understanding of the resources needed to meet that need, you are now in a position to define your mission or purpose. A crucial decision is whether you will be single purpose, i.e., meal service, or provide multiple services.

Although the development of a mission statement can often be a frustrating and tedious process, it is worth the effort because it can become a sort of automatic pilot that keeps you on course if you consistently refer to it.

Should You Incorporate as a Nonprofit?

Many soup kitchens incorporate as nonprofit agencies. Becoming a nonprofit or a 501(c) (3) organization means the entity, usually a corporation, is organized for a nonprofit purpose and has been recognized by the IRS as being tax-exempt by virtue of its charitable programs. Forming a corporation means that the founders, or incorporators, are creating a legal entity that exists wholly apart from the people involved with it. Most people prefer to form a nonprofit corporation because of the personal liability protection a corporation provides.

An important second reason for becoming a non-profit under the tax code is to allow donors to deduct their contributions from their taxable income. A third reason is because you want to accept grants and donations and want exemption for yourself from paying federal income tax. Yet another reason is that you must be a 501(c)(3) organization to receive government commodities and join the food bank. Section 501(c)(3) organizations are very restricted in how much political and legislative lobbying activity they may conduct. Appendices A and B provide further details on filing and approval of corporate, non-profit status and development of bylaws.

Other administrative issues that you will need to consider at the outset are insurance coverage for property and liability, health insurance for any employees and Health Department Certification from your local municipality.

Fundamental Food Service Policies

Agree upon the following:

  • How do you want to refer to those who come to your soup kitchen? Various titles we have heard are dinner guests, consumers, and patrons. TASK uses the title patrons since consumers and patrons sound somewhat clinical.
  • What will be your days, times and hours of operation?
  • How many people do you plan to serve initially?
  • Who will do menu planning?
  • Has anyone taken, or will they take, food safety
  • Will you be serving on a cafeteria line vs. or pro-
    viding table service?
  • Do you want to provide immediate service for
    those who don’t have much time (who may be on lunch break from their low-paying job)?
  • Do you want to be able to provide alternate servings (for those who are allergic to certain foods or those who have religious dietary restrictions)?

TIPS for Getting Started

TIP #1 – In your mission discussions, you will probably find that your resources constrain what you would ideally wish to do, so it is important to start modestly and be successful, as opposed to being overly ambitious and falling short or running into avoidable problems.

TIP #2 – One possible source of food for your kitchen is “Plant a Row” projects where home gardeners designate one or more rows for food to be donated to the soup kitchen.

TIP #3 – Your mission statement should take no longer than 10 to 15 seconds to read or hear. It should hopefully stimulate the response, tell me much more. Your mission should be one that is easily described to all of your constituents – board, staff, volunteers, donors, patrons, and the wider community.

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