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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Book of Matthew: Don’t turn a blind eye to soup kitchens

Published: December 3, 2010
Section: Opinions

When I was in high school, I spent many afternoons volunteering at my local soup kitchen.

At the time, the “Community Café,” as it was called, was located inside the gymnasium of a small Presbyterian Church. Supplied by the Worcester County Food Bank and by individual donations, and run by a dedicated part-time chef and a constantly changing crew of volunteers, the Café served between 50 to 100 people per night, six nights per week. It was even open on Christmas, when a Jewish family from my town’s only synagogue regularly volunteered to help cook an impressive holiday meal.

As I moved from table to table serving food, I often wondered where these people went on Saturdays, when the Café was closed, or where they would go if, for some reason, the Café had to cease operation. Most of the patrons were regulars, and while some ate at the Café to avoid staying home alone, many were unemployed, homeless or retired workers who could not afford a nutritious meal.

Mind you, this was about four or five years ago—well before the economic downturn. The national unemployment rate was a manageable 5 percent and showed no immediate sign of worsening. For many, the most important economic issues of the day were not poverty or unemployment, but rather housing prices, and the awe-inspiring, meteoric rise of the stock market.

I can only imagine what the Café and other soup kitchens look like today. The unemployment rate is now almost double what it was back then—triple or quadruple, if one is to take into account the underemployed and discouraged workers who are no longer seeking jobs. And Republicans in Congress, in an apparent effort to demonstrate that there is no limit to how penny-wise and pound-foolish they can be, are refusing to allow an unemployment benefits extension until Democrats, at the very least, accept the continuation of Bush-era tax cuts for wealthy individuals.

The consequences of this shortsightedness will soon be felt, and food banks all over the country are bracing for it. In a recent interview with The Huffington Post, Vicki Escarra, CEO of Feeding America, a nationwide hunger relief charity, said that her organization’s 200 member food banks are expecting the number of people they feed to increase dramatically in the coming months. The unemployed, the newly-homeless, parents who have spent the remains of their disposable income on food for their children—they will all come seeking help in large numbers.

These banks already feed six million people per week.

Without an increase in support from a decreasing number of individuals and businesses who can afford to make donations, it’s possible that these charities—the last refuges for so many struggling people—will have no choice but to cut back on their services.

Winter is tough on the poor, especially here in New England. It’s even tougher when you are hungry; when you’ve been out in the bitter cold all day; when people walk by you without stopping to acknowledge your presence.

Congress may be turning a blind eye, but we students, who have been lucky enough to have evaded the worst aspects of the recession, don’t have to. There are plenty of ways to give right here in the Boston area. The most obvious choice is the Greater Boston Food Bank, which accepts money and food items and distributes to soup kitchens and food pantries all across the Eastern part of the state. But there are also smaller operations, like the Bristol Lodge Soup Kitchen at the Immanuel United Methodist Church on Moody Street and the Sacred Heart Parish Food Pantry on River Street, that accept donations, especially during the holiday season.

Just something to think about before you go home for a warm, cozy winter break.