Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Soup Kitchen - The Hidden People

This past week a political maneuver to create a buzz of moral responsibility failed tremendously. It wasn't just that the politician forced his way into a soup kitchen that was closing after a long day of service. It wasn't just that pressure was put on tired volunteers to remain for a photo opportunity that they may have been politically, personally, or morally opposed to. It wasn't just that the politician fumbled his way into an apron that had just been put away and washed dishes that had already been washed.

It was more than this. The politician missed the point. He missed that the volunteers who worked that long day had just made and served hundreds of meals to the homeless, the mentally unstable, the drug addicts and alcoholics, the elderly, the folks with young children, the folks looking for meaningful employment, the lonely. Folks so desperate for a hot meal that they troop down to this location and stand in a cold hallway waiting to be allowed to enter, their belly's grumbling from the smell of hot food wafting through the closed doors.

He came after they had been served. He came after they had left. He came not to touch lives. Not to listen to the stories of sorrow and suffering. Not to contribute with his time, resources, or experience.

He is not the only politician to use the soup kitchen or pantry to create a buzz, and unfortunately he will not be the last to use people to create a false history about themselves.

Yesterday I went to Central City Cafe at 200 East Eagle Street located in the outskirts of downtown Buffalo. I went unannounced. I didn't pull out my camera. I didn't make any waves. I bowed my head along with everyone else when the kitchen head said prayers. I sat and ate my plate of lentils and roast pork on rice and my icy cold brown banana and my bitter coffee while sitting across from Kelly. Kelly has been coming to this kitchen off and on over the last three years. Every time he stops taking his medication for schizophrenia he's admitted to ECMC and eats very well there, but he says he really likes the meals here. With shaking hands he struggles with the creamer cup and finally gives up. He eats what he can but the meds make his stomach queasy so he eats like a bird, though you can see he really needs to eat it all. He trembles and scatters rice across the table, his occasional "Fuck you man." tumbles uncontrollably, tic like, out of his mouth. But he lucidly smiles and says, "It's good food here. You don't drink, you don't smoke, and they feed you good food here."

This is what the politician and others like him have missed. The sour milk scent, the worn out strollers with sleepy babies in twenty year old consigned clothing, the shoes worn so thin you can see the color of socks peeking at the heel, the rheumy yellowed eyes of long time drinkers, the warm smiles of the grateful. It's nerve wrenching for those who come for the first time. They look so obviously out of place. You can see the look on their face. "How they hell did I end up here? How the hell can I get out of here without feeling like I've groveled for a bowl of rice and limp vegetables?"

This is why I am so adamant about improving the types of food donated at my International Dinners. This is why I want to honor the work that Food Not Bombs does. This is why I encourage people to donate time as well as money to their local kitchen and pantry. This is not about coddling or being permissive, this is about supporting the community you live in. The first world concerns of malfunctioning phone apps, doggy day care issues,  not having enough money to put eyelashes on your car so you put it on a 21% interest credit card just boggles my mind. There are people in your neighborhood that don't eat or don't eat enough. Don't have access to clean water, to bathrooms, a place to do laundry. Have you ever scrubbed a t-shirt in a public restroom and dried it using the hand dryers? Have you ever bathed using a container of wet naps?

I don't want you to feel guilty. I want you to feel inspired to do something. Even if you can only contribute four times a year. Pick times that are not connected to a holiday. Holidays are easy. Too easy. It's the times in between that help is needed. It's not an all or nothing endeavor either. You do what you can, when you can. You do it quietly, unobtrusively, without thank you's, without that tax return slip for write off purposes. You can't write off your neighbors, you can't write off their lives, you can't make a profit off of their suffering. You do the work without expectations. When you do this, you discover it brings it's own rewards. I can only guarantee that this much is true.

If you want some ideas on how to help, you can contact me through email. I would be happy to suggest different ways in which you can make the greatest impact in the smallest of ways.


  1. If you'd like to volunteer to help GROW fresh vegetables for Central City Cafe--please find Garden of Stewardship on facebook and watch for our posted workdays or give Caesandra a call; we need volunteers who are willing to get their hands dirty.

  2. Awesome Annie. Thank you for this blog :) It was a pleasure meeting you today and being introduced to the heart behind that smile and those reat colors, by just reading this one post. :)

    1. Awwwww Lauren thank you! It was very nice to meet you too. I was thinking, it would be great to collaborate on a SOLE of Buffalo event with Westminster sometime. Let's stay in touch.

  3. This is a great post and very thought-provoking.

    1. Thank you Amy! I've been inspired by some of the rhetoric out there. There is just a plethora of dumb maneuvers and misinformation to work with lately!