It’s just another day across Tucson: Early morning, tucked behind neighborhood churches or shelters, about 25 community members stand in line, patiently. There’s a mix of veterans, seniors, homeless and people who are live at the poverty level – Many have traveled miles for the conversation as much as the coffee. Some want food bags or a bar of soap, and others ask to meet a counselor for transportation assistance. At one location, a few have come for the showers offered three times a week. When the coffee urn and the donated bread are carried to the table, everyone on line surges forward. Each person is warmly welcomed; everyone is nourished.
Soup kitchen, food bank or community pantry — whatever the name, these small engines of miracles do more than feed the needy each weekday in our city.
“We all have this in common, the need to come together over food and for others to listen to our stories,” says Deacon Nancy Meister of Grace St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, where Joseph’s Pantry is a tiny nourishment outpost that serves as a food pantry with light meals that include coffee, cup of soup, oatmeal or peanut butter and jelly, and as a food distribution point for thousands each year. There is no “us” or “them” on this one morning, just community members needing the same things.
Some volunteers were dropping off food donations or setting out the Pantry’s morning coffee or soup, while others were listening to stories about health issues, jobs lost, life.
There was always someone to listen for what’s needed and to step up to the plate.
Similar scenes were occurring cross town, like at Caridad Community Kitchen, a program of the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona. Program Manager Kristen Culliney says that Caridad Community Kitchen partners with eight different churches and one women’s shelter to distribute the food that is made at its kitchen, providing both hot meals, sack lunches and custom-made soups for the sites that help distribute food to the hungry and homeless in our community.
Although designated a “soup kitchen,” Caridad considers itself so much more and rarely referred to itself as such. “We provide completes meal (protein, starch, vegetable and/or fruit), and we create meals that are recognizable and comforting,” notes Kristen. “Our meals definitely nourish both the body and soul – when the temperatures drop and nights are longer, hot meals not only provide comfort but warmth and sustenance. We believe no one should go to bed hungry and our goal is for people who are hungry not to have to choose between food and some other basic need (shelter, water, childcare) – we want to take care of the food need.”
Loyal crews of volunteers do their best to make sure nourishment of all kinds is meaningful and plentiful at nourishment spots. “They build a sense of community among themselves while they prep to feed our community,” says Kristen. “When you visit one of our partner churches you will see people gathered around the table, ‘catching up’ or checking in with each other. Those that live on the streets have their own type of community and frequently sit with each other to talk or share stories,” she continues.
The term soup kitchen originates in the Great Depression, although offerings today go beyond the hot broth served on last century’s bread lines. However, soup is still a food pantry favorite: Kristen gives examples of soups served for Most Holy Trinity Soup Patrol: Broccoli Cheddar Soup, Southwest Chicken Chili, Minestrone with Italian Sausage. A typical hot meal could be: Braised chicken thighs, brown rice, and a green salad.
Caridad Community Kitchen prepares approximately 18,000 meals per month going to meal sites, Boys & Girls Clubs, and feeding the students in a Culinary Training Program. And every person served (or serving) has a story, she says: “We find that the volunteers who help prepare over 5000 sack lunches each month share stories of their lives, their children, their holidays and weekends.”
Many of those conversations have fostered friendships. You get to know people, it seems: Everyone with so many varying stories, all of a sudden realizing a crisis is the only difference separating the volunteer from the recipient.
As the morning wears on at Joseph’s Pantry, everyone stays around, wanting to be helpful by fetching a spoon for one visitor’s soup, or layering jelly on bread just arrived from Beyond Bread’s generous food donation for another.
We’re here as community, not just as a group of needy individuals, both Kristen and Deacon Meister comment. For volunteers as well as those who come for assistance or to volunteer, it’s all a message of respect and nourishing community, touching more lives than you can imagine.
- More than bread: Ethnography of a Soup Kitchen, by Irene Glasser; read a Google Books preview http://books.google.com/books?id=X0KM83CJmUoC&pg=PA1&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false
- Soup Kitchen origins: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/count-rumford-and-the-history-of-the-soup-kitchen-26785526/
- One Chef’s story: http://narrative.ly/stories/five-star-soup-kitchen/
- Digitized compassion: a movement to feed the homeless in Los Angeles: http://www.hashtaglunchbag.com