For the record, I do not run a soup kitchen. Rather, I volunteer at a kitchen on my day off. It gives me something to focus on other than the computer. Also, I get a chance to peer inside the world of food service. The following is just my observation of how organizations use food kitchens both for nourishment and social cohesion.

I "work" for an interdenominational federation of food kitchens and clothes distribution centers. Long Island happens to have one of the wealthiest counties in the country; yet even between the Lexuses (Lexi?) are the starving. Sometimes they're even in the Lexuses. The working poor make up a large part of our services; men and women who work in low-paying service jobs eat lunch with us to have more to feed the kids.

My center runs on an all-volunteer force. At any time 30 volunteers are working either in food prep, clothes sorting, or food inventory. Contrary to what some may say our conditions are very sanitary, at least when I'm there. Glove checks are frequent, and recently I was asked "politely" to cut my hair, or get a bigger hat. Every conceiveable type of meal is donated, from Indian cuisine to dubious "vegan" casserole items. Religious holidays are the best; interesting to see chocolate Easter bunnies and matzohs next to one another.

The most difficult part is creating balanced diets. Understandably, most patrons want carbohydrates. Yet the center tries to foist on them protein rich products, including soy milk and every possible type of bean. Volunteers are told never to force a patron to take one food over another; just give 'em what they want. Likewise, if they ask for more food, give it to them.

The greatest threats to food kitchen survival, from my observation, are the Board of Health and corporations/municipal services, like the United States Postal Service. While I am not concerned about the safety of the site that I volunteer at, incidents outside the site, even ones that concern commercial restaurants, can effect public perception of any food service. If the Board of Health detects that anyone is even missing a hat or pair of gloves, the whole operation loses face. Reputation equals donation, and donation keeps the kitchen alive. Ditto corporations and municipalities. Corporations want the security of a healthy operation plus ego stroking. So volunteers are told to ingratiate themselves to whoever important walks in toting banners and freebie clipboards. Volunteers, I gather, should have no pride ...

The hardest part of volunteering is saying "no". Like, "no" I don't have this type of food, or "no", you have to wait to get clothing. Yet our kitchen gets the job done, even if the salad dressing looks mottled.

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