This week, I finished an interview with Debra South Jones, executive director of Just the Right Attitude, a combination food bank/soup kitchen in New Orleans. It seemed logical to next check out what is going on in my own neighborhood. Over the last few days, I discovered an intricate network of soup kitchens, food pick-up, clothing distribution, counseling, job referrals, substance abuse treatment, warming centers and shelters, all just a few minutes’ drive from my home. Many of these services operate under the auspices of Interfaith Action of Evanston. Incorporated in 1970, its mission has always been to help the hungry and homeless. Interfaith recently embraced “all religious and spiritual communities;" now, over 50 religious organizations work cooperatively under its mantle.
I spoke with people from three of these soup kitchens. All of the programs have much in common. They each feed around 100 guests every week, on their designated day. Rules are simple: no drugs, no fighting, and problems are rare. All participants share a commitment to make this a pleasant and dignified experience. The network-wide schedule has changed very little over the last few years, offering consistency for both volunteers and guests.
Let’s take a closer look.
Wednesday Suppers at Beth Emet
Everything is made from scratch here, and a volunteer pastry chef prepares the desserts. So, it’s no wonder that this soup kitchen is reputed to serve the best food. I caught up with Jessie Macdonald Wednesday evening after their weekly dinner. She laughed ruefully because the brownies had looked so good; she’d been half hoping for left-overs. Wishful thinking – seconds are routinely served and volunteers pack up the remainder for the guests to take with them.
Beth Emet was the last soup kitchen to open in Evanston. Jessie has been involved from the beginning – 2002 – and most of the original crew is still active. Everything runs with precision. There is a committee; each member has a specific responsibility: treasurer, scheduler, writing flyers, or retrieving phone messages. Three committee members oversee the whole enterprise every week and nine others split up the responsibilities for ‘their’ Wednesday: choosing the menu, as well as distributing shopping and cooking assignments to the volunteers.
Ten volunteer cooks show up each Wednesday afternoon. They bring ingredients for the meal, so that they share the cost of the meal as well as preparing it. Five fresh volunteers show up after the meal for clean-up. Several guests help put the chairs away after the meal, which they have been doing for years.
Volunteer sign-up is done a year at a time. Participants come from various community groups, banks, schools, and other synagogues, as well as Beth Emet’s own membership. The program continues to be quite popular; right now there is a waiting list for volunteers that is a month-six weeks long.
One family has been making and bringing in forty sandwiches once a month for the last six years. School groups sometimes decorate the bags for the sack lunches, or make centerpieces. There are tablecloths, flowers and live music – this week, a piano and violin duet. It sounds like a class act.
This soup kitchen has been spared the need for fund-raising because of the commitment of its synagogue membership. Whoever is hungry is welcome. And there’s no paperwork to fill out. After six years, Jessie is still enthusiastic. She says, speaking from the heart, “It’s a privilege to be able to do this.”
Tuesday nights, Soup at Six
Soup at Six was established in 1983. Volunteer leader Julie Cowan has been involved for the last eight years.
I knew a couple of the people who started it and I thought it seemed like a great idea to get my kids started early to do volunteer work, just as my mom had taken me since I was a child. This soup kitchen … was right in our neighborhood, it was not extremely structured, so that with smallish kids I could be flexible. One day, I just showed up and we started by cutting up vegetables for salad and fruit, and once the serving started, we handed out lunches and juice boxes.
I think it is great to give time each week, when it becomes something that you just do. It is not extraordinary in any way. It reminds us each and every day that we are very lucky to have enough and to be healthy.
Every Tuesday, the volunteers creatively – and heroically – stretch limited resources to produce 100 meals: soup, salad, bread, an entrée, dessert, and a sack lunch to go. This is the only nonsectarian soup kitchen in Evanston. Its independence is simultaneously an advantage and a disadvantage. Because there is no church group to act as its natural funding base, Soup at Six is always struggling financially.
We are the ultimate grass roots organization. For over 25 years, Soup at Six has depended on the gracious generosity of people in our community and they have continuously come through for us. Whoever you are, we could use your help in donating food or monies now, to help us with the stove hood purchase and installation [to comply with the Evanston health code; otherwise, we will be shut down] and our continuous need to keep food on the table on Tuesday nights at Soup at Six. Angels are most welcome.
Support Soup at Six. Don’t allow it to flounder when need is on the rise. Pack up a grocery bag and send a donation to: Soup at Six, 933 Chicago Avenue, Evanston, IL 60202.
Thursday suppers and Christmas Day at 1st United Methodist Church
First United Methodist Church operates its soup kitchen on Thursday evenings. This year they got Christmas and New Year’s, as well as Thanksgiving. I will be volunteering there on Christmas, along with family and friends. Initially, we planned to make sandwiches and take them down to Union Station. But, after discovering what Evanston offers, I prefer be a small cog in its well-oiled machine. I also like the idea of freeing up would-be volunteers so they can celebrate the holiday with their families. I'm really looking forward to this.
Ten Second Take-Away
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