Children of the Soup Kitchen

When I walked into the soup kitchen, my attention was caught by the kids. Little kids – infants in car seats, toddlers leaning against their moms, grade school kids staring at their trays. It breaks my heart. These kids have done nothing wrong, yet their start is already ten steps behind so many. They are the innocents caught in the trap of poverty. These are the kids who will perpetuate the cycle of poverty unless something changes.

Too often, kids echo what they see and hear. A parent struggling to survive, looking to find a warm place for her family to sleep and scrounging for food to fill their bellies often lacks the time and energy to help that child learn. So not only is the child cold and hungry, that child is also failing to get the basics. Mom doesn’t teach her the abcs. Dad doesn’t work on colors and shapes with him. When do they catch up? How do they catch up?

Poverty is a horrible trap. A self-perpetuating cycle that can be broken only through education and major change. According to studies, 13 million American children, 18% our children are being raised in families earning less than the federal poverty level ($21,200 per year). The children trapped in this cycle did not choose to be born into poverty. Hell, given their druthers, they’d be children of rich parents. But we don’t get to make that choice, and our initial beginnings are as much a factor of randomness as anything else.

A child who spends his or her early years dining in a soup kitchen has a dramatically different worldview than a child who never has to worry about getting fed. The safety, comfort and attention levels are very different.

Soup kitchens can only provide so much – a hot meal, another meal of peanut butter and jelly or some other shelf stable food to take with. Perhaps there is access to social workers and other tools that may help move a person forward. But it doesn’t give a small child an even playing field with children who live in relatively stable homes with relatively stable families. The socialization of these poor children is dramatically different than those in more affluent families. Growing up in a car or a shelter is not on par with growing up in a home and going for playdates at the neighbors.

As our economy spirals downward, I wonder how many more children will be eating in the soup kitchen. How many young kids will find nourishment at the generosity of strangers? The long terms effects are staggering. The levels of impoverished children has grown steadily over the last seven years. That places a burden on the schools they attend to provide remedial and basic classes to help bring them up to speed; higher numbers of kids needing free lunch. Health care costs for a malnourished child or child raised on cheap fast food soar. Maybe they’ll catch up. More likely not. And then what?

Many of us take extra time and money to help out the poor at Thanksgiving and Christmas. We bring our sacks of toys and canned goods to local shelters and offer our time. That is a wonderful thing. But is it enough?

The gaps between rich children and poor children exist. How do we change them? How do we create a society where every child has a chance? I have no answers, only questions. I do believe that we can find ways to defeat poverty and the effect it has on children, but only by actually paying attention (and money) to work on the issue. Poverty is usually hidden from view, in ghettos and barrios far out of view from the rich. It needs to be brought to the forefront and discussed openly and loudly.

BAH – Bloggers Against Hunger is one way to do that. It’s not too late to get involved. BAH blogs can be posted through Friday, and on Monday, I will post a complete list of all those who got involved. Write, read, comment. Your voice could be the answer.  Please link your Hunger Related blog here or send me a message letting me know where to find it.

By:  Lauren J. Walter  November 12, 2008


In the Soup Kitchen – A Bloggers Against Hunger Blog

Today is the first BAH – Blogathon – Bloggers Against Hunger. It’s an effort to raise awareness about hunger in America. This blog is not fiction. I wish it was.

Volunteering at a soup kitchen is an experience – a heart-breaking, thought-provoking, heart-warming experience. I’ve had the opportunity to volunteer serving several lunches at a soup kitchen on Long Island, New York. What’s it like? Well, I’ll try and share that with you now.

The doors to the kitchen open at 11:00 a.m. Before that time, people queue up outside, sometimes quietly, sometimes not so quietly, usually without any major problems. As I walk by the queue into the warmth of the kitchen, I look at the people standing in line, waiting in the cold for a warm meal and a place to thaw out. Many carry their prized possessions; shopping bags piled high with god only knows what. When the doors finally open, they are directed inside, first to a table to secure their spot, then to the food line. The volunteers greet them with big smiles and welcoming words. Depending on the day, the food options vary. Sandwiches, soup, hot entrees, salad, bread, fruit, whatever can be put out is. The guests fill their plates, one to a customer, but they know as long as the food holds, they can get seconds.

They return to their seats, and a few words are spoken – a non-denominational prayer of thanks, announcements made about availability of social workers, housing, job opportunities, language classes, the week’s schedule for the kitchen. The guests begin eating, and for a moment, I see contentment. Here, they are safe, even if it’s only for a few minutes.

Glancing around the room I take note of the guests. The ages range from newborn to senior citizen. The ethnic mix is similarly disparate – Hispanic, African American, Caucasian. Some are known to have psychological issues and are seated accordingly. All sit side by side as they eat their lunch. There is a buzz in the room as conversations are held and information conveyed. The guests maintain a cautious air about them, as if afraid to fully let down their guard. I watch as the young mothers feed their small children and wonder what life will be like for those little ones. The time goes quickly, and the guests begin to funnel out, many reaching for the bag that contains their dinner – a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a piece of fruit.

As they leave the kitchen, I wonder where they go. To an apartment filled with a dozen other men, all sharing one room? To a car, where they spend the night huddled against the cold? To a shelter, where they are safe, but transient? What about the children? How do they do their homework or attend school with all the uncertainty of their lives? For those with mental illnesses or other physical ailments, how do they obtain their medications and take it on a regular basis?

I’ve spoken to some of the guests, trying to learn their stories, and each one tears another piece out of my heart. The woman whose mental illness caused her to lose her job, her husband, her home and her children. The man who lost his job and ran out of unemployment benefits and is just barely hanging on to his apartment. The Hispanic man who tells me through a translator about coming to America in hopes of a better life, and living next to a dumpster until he found a mattress in an apartment with 12 other men. The woman with three children whose latest man was arrested, leaving her homeless. Not all of the guests have hard luck stories, some are stories of stupidity, of foolishness and of criminal acts. But all the stories share the same result and one of the key factors for all of them is the lack of a safety net.

I spoke with a woman whose two young children played quietly next to us. My pocketbook sat on the table, next to where I stood. Easily within both watch and reach. I left it there intentionally, trying to combat my own fears. Trying to trust in the goodness of this place. The woman I was speaking with pokes me, “Is that your bag?” I nod yes. She says, “Hold on to it, you can’t trust these people.”

I spend a lot of time wondering about these people. About how to change things so that homelessness and hunger can one day be eradicated. The problems run deep. There are no easy answers, no quick fix solution. Money needs to be invested into our poor. Money to teach them basic life skills. Better help networks need to be set up and made accessible. More lower income housing and better social services for those in the neighborhoods. Education for parents and kids. Bilingual education for adults. Reasonably priced quality child care. Better public transportation. Health care that won’t force sick individuals into bankruptcy and homelessness.

When I get discouraged over this growing problem, I remember the amazing thing about all of this. You can make a difference. You can change someone’s life. You can help make this a better country. All it takes is a phone call and a couple of hours of your life. Call a food bank in your county and make a commitment to volunteer one afternoon a month. Hold a food drive for a local food bank. Call and volunteer to tutor some kids or adults. Call your legislators and demand that America invest in its poor. Look at what you have to offer and see if you can find a good fit. It doesn’t have to be a weekly commitment – whatever you can give helps. The more the merrier.

Together we can all make a difference.

Here are some links to organizations that may be a good starting point for you:

Share our Strength

America’s Second Harvest

World Hunger Year

The New York City Food Bank

This is my first blog for the BAH – Bloggers Against Hunger Project. Please join the group – we’ll be blogging again in the fall, trying to call attention to hunger here in America. I’ll be posting links to all the blogs later today, so take some time and read how other folks address the issue.

Here are the blogs posted so far – please check them out!

You still have time to post yours – just let me know so I can put a link up for you!

CC’s Blog>bloggers-against-hunger-reporting-from-maine

Aaaaaaaaron’s Blog

Chances Are, You Won the Lottery

Torment’s Blog

Bloggin Against Hunger

McFeisty’s blog

In The Ghetto

Misha’s Blog

I Don’t Know How They Do It

By: Lauren J. Walter 6/18/08