Soup Kitchens on Thanksgiving: Surplus of Volunteers, Needs Everywhere Else

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Social Security Administration
Most days, the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen in Chelsea gets about 50 volunteers, sometimes as much as 70. This Thanksgiving, they will have more than a hundred, all of whom signed-up far in advance. The first-come-first-serve list filled up weeks ago, and the kitchen has had to turn away "hundreds" of prospective volunteers since, says Rev. Rev. Glenn Chalmers, the program's executive director.

"Everyone seems to want to volunteer at the holidays," he says.

Spending Thanksgiving serving the needy is a tradition embedded deep within American cultural psyche. A sitcom cliche. A universal symbol for gratefulness. It is a pleasant tradition.

But it also leads to an inefficient distribution of our collective good will.

"with the holidays it's when we get all the media and the volunteers, but we're here all year," says Chalmers.

Any other time of the year, soup kitchens are eager to take as many helping hands as possible. In the Season of Giving, though, there are more urgent needs: warm clothes, toiletries, blankets, and, of course, food and cash.

The Caldwell Temple Soup Kitchen in Foxhurst, Bronx serves 300 to 400 people on normal days. On Thanksgiving, they're expecting up to 800. Sandra Reyes, who heads the program, explains that the kitchen starts accumulating food for the feast in September.

This week, as she made final purchases at the supermarket, several people she passed told her "I'm gonna be there tomorrow!"

She'll have around 30 volunteers tomorrow, double the usual amount. The extra hands will help manage the larger flow of patrons -- the soup kitchen seats 120 and the faster the staff can clean up the tables, the sooner they'll be able to feed the next set of people in line. But there are a host of diverse duties the organizations needs on the other 364 days as well.

Sometimes people think that the only help they can give to soup kitchens is to serve a plate of food," says Reyes. "Soup kitchens need all kind f man power: for storage, cooks, IT people, accounting. We are a very small organization and we cannot pay for those things."

Across-the-board budget cuts have increased the challenges. Two years ago, Holy Apostles lost half of its government funding. Chalmers faced a stark choice: cut staff or cut service from five days a week to three days a week. He settled on the former.

Soup kitchens are losing resources at a time when they see greater demand. When the federal government sliced funding for food stamps this month, the lines of hungry people grew longer. Which leads to an inevitable frustration: food shortages. Just a couple of weeks ago, Caldwell Temple ran out of food before serving all those who showed-up to eat. Earlier this week, the New York Times reported on food pantries struggling to keep up with the rising population of hungry.

Reyes is confident her kitchen has stocked enough food for all who come for the Thanksgiving meal. And even if not, "we'll find my way to feed them. We keep cooking until we feed everybody."

On Thursday Caldwell Temple will begin serving at 11 a.m. and Holy Apostles at 10:30 a.m.

"The faces changed over the last couple of years," Chalmers says. "You see more people who are underemployed just trying to make things stretch. you see more young guys, college grads. The other day I was sitting next to one guy in a three-piece suit. He was laid off from Wall Street firm. Never thought in his life he'd end up at a soup kitchen line."

Send story tips to the author, Albert Samaha





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