Soup Kitchens—a Last Refuge for the Hungry—Struggle to Meet Demand

The loss of safe, indoor spaces to share a community meal may have shredded what social fabric the most vulnerable had.



It had been decades since Portland Oregon’s Blanchet House had offered meals to-go. But the day after Oregon Governor Kate Brown ordered the state’s bars and restaurants to cease sit-down service, the long-standing men’s transitional shelter and dining began serving its meals out the door.

“We had to invent [the] process,” says executive director Scott Kerman. “And then we’ve reinvented it a number of times … because the rules of the game keep changing.”

For years, Blanchet House’s café welcomed 60 guests at a time, three times a day, six days a week, serving what amounted to 900 to 1,000 meals a day. They’ve now cracked the 2,000-meal-a-day mark, serving guests who form a line extending for three blocks.

A large commercial kitchen and empty dining room allow volunteers to continue working six feet apart. The only pinch point is when they hand filled plastic clamshells and pieces of fruit across the three-feet wide table jammed in the doorway.

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“We put the container on the table, then the volunteer can take a step back, so it creates that distance,” explains Kerman.

Groups like Blanchet House are working furiously to feed hungry and homeless people while millions shelter in place to stem the spread of COVID-19. Many operations have been overhauled for safety, while their staff has been reduced, and volunteers barred. Guests have lost the security and sense of community found in dining halls as plates and seats have been replaced with to-go windows.

The outbreak has also exposed cracks in the foundations of our society, as frontline organizations face disruptions to their food supply chains, a continued shortage of labor, and an ongoing increase in demand as an unprecedented 10 million people filed for unemployment in the last two weeks of March.

For now, food is still reaching those in need, but the future remains uncertain.

Maintaining Staff and Volunteers is Difficult

At the Church of the Holy Apostles in New York City—the 38-year-old soup kitchen famous for continuing serving food to those in need through the days following 9/11—a brigade of 50 volunteers has been all but eliminated and the meals are now being prepared by a team of 14 people.

In San Francisco’s perennially hard-knock Tenderloin district, the GLIDE Foundation is also doing more with less after a three-day temporary closure in mid-March.

“We had a handful of staff that had cold and flu symptoms,” says Kenneth Kim, senior director of programs at GLIDE. “Being an essential service, we couldn’t close down. But we wanted to at least do our due diligence in making sure all of the facilities were disinfected.”

When they reopened to serve lunch, it was only takeout, and there were no volunteers allowed inside to help.

GLIDE is a large organization, but the loss of extra hands to cut veggies, make sandwiches, and serve meals has put a strain on their capacity. Employees from their suspended social service operations have joined the dining hall’s 15 staffers, but there aren’t enough people to make up for lost numbers.

Before the coronavirus hit, Kim says they served three meals a day, seven days a week, to 80 to 100 guests at a time. Today, they’ve split the labor with a neighboring organization which is handling lunch so GLIDE can focus on breakfast and dinner. And the line has continued to grow.

“We’ve got a small group of really committed volunteers who would probably fight through zombies to get here every day.”

In Portland, Kerman and three payrolled shelter residents are the only Blanchet House employees left on site; everyone else is working from home or at the organization’s residency farm in nearby Carlton. Other shelter residents have stepped up to help, and some regular volunteers who don’t have to stay away due to health concerns keep coming in.

“We’ve got a small group of really committed volunteers who I think would probably fight through zombies to get here every day, but we’ve also gotten a lot of first-time volunteers who are now showing up every day,” says Kerman. “Some of them are showing up twice a day.”

Kerman explains to all newcomers that they are entering a high-risk environment with a high-risk population. No volunteer is allowed in if they have experienced any cold and flu symptoms in the past 72 hours.

“They understand that in a crisis, if you want to do charitable service, risk is involved in that,” says Kerman. “You don’t run into a building when it’s not burning.”

A Loss of Communal Space

One risk Kerman won’t contemplate is sending someone outside to police guests. Neighbors have complained about the crowds of people standing close to one another in line—but for now there’s not much he can safely do to enforce social distancing.

“We’re dealing with a lot of mental health crisis, addiction crisis, and hostile street energy,” says Kerman. “Even if we spray painted lines on the sidewalk and they spaced themselves, somebody would come up and fill that gap.”

GLIDE's daily free meal and water setup. (Photo courtesy of GLIDE)

GLIDE’s daily free meal and water setup. (Photo courtesy of GLIDE)

At GLIDE, Kim sees the same increase in uncertainty and anxiety. There’s been an uptick of conflicts in line, even with the organization’s community safety team out trying to calm tensions and keep people six feet apart.

“We have folks who have severe mental illness who may be very irritable or paranoid. We have other folks with mobility issues that we have to try and figure out how to accommodate,” says Kim. “But most importantly, when folks are having a hard time being in line, we try to accommodate them as quickly as possible rather than enforce a rule where they aren’t allowed to get a meal.”

For now, it appears that the loss of safe spaces to be indoors and get fed with other people may have shredded what social fabric this vulnerable community had.

“A lot of our approach to doing the meals inside was to try to create as much community as possible,” says Kim. “Our new meals director had made some great improvements, like putting up pictures and piping music in (mostly oldies), having circular tables instead of long cafeteria tables to encourage more sense of community.”

Now the weekly senior socials are cancelled, and a dozen chairs are spaced out in the parking lot. People automatically congregate over their meals outside and the safety team reminds them to distance themselves. There are still lighter moments; Kim jokes with people in line when he works the food tables, but laughs come harder now. “It’s one thing to hand out the food, but it’s another to share a meal,” says Kim.

Kerman chokes up when he remembers the last indoor service at Blanchet House. Their guests are mostly regulars who have cultivated relationships with the longtime volunteers and staff. Their café operated more as a restaurant than a soup kitchen—people were shown to their seats by a host, a hot plate was placed in front of them, their cups were refilled. The organization’s approach caters to the dignity and essential humanity of the guests by offering them a normal, everyday experience for most people—one that’s rare for the homeless.

“It’s one thing to hand out the food, but it’s another to share a meal”

“It’s a really nice atmosphere. What a lot of the people who eat here tell us is that it’s good to feel normal again,” says Kerman. “It’s almost like a restaurant, and sitting at a table for four can bring community.”

One small hospitality house (that asked not to be named) on the outer edge of San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood emphasizes the importance of communal spaces to those without spaces of their own. Guests could eat all they wanted, seated in the common room or the space’s garden, and they could stay until it closed.

“We’re a place where anyone can come and get a hot meal, be treated with respect and compassion,” according to Chris Jones, an employee of the organization who requested we use a pseudonym.

“We don’t ask your name, we don’t ask how you found out about us. Anybody who comes through the doors, as long as they respect the rules of no fighting, no drinking, and no drugs, you’re good to go.”

Normally the soup kitchen is open for breakfast three days a week and lunch six, all prepared, cooked, and served by a rotation of some 200 volunteers. Since switching to takeout on March 12, six people make two breakfasts and five lunches a week, and they’re available to pick up in bags at the gate.

Both San Francisco-based organizations provide outdoor toilets and sinks. Blanchet House asked Portland officials for a hygiene station, but as of press time it had not yet been delivered. However, Kerman says that Portland officials have been especially responsive whenever he’s proactive, providing them with an oversized trash bin, parking passes after volunteers got ticketed at meters, and now access to a city-owned parking lot next door.

An Abundance of Food Now, Concern for the Future

One thing that Blanchet House hasn’t had to worry about is their larder. Typically, 80 percent of the food they serve comes from the Oregon Convention Center and local businesses. But when restaurants closed down, it was a windfall for the organization.

“We probably collected close to 50,000 pounds of donated food, most of it perishable,” says Kerman. “Every hotel, every foodservice operation, every mom-and-pop restaurant or bakery, they had to get rid of all their product.”

Blanchet House's Curtiss Goodwin collects perishable food donations from the Oregon Convention Center. (Photo credit: Julie Showers)

Blanchet House’s Curtiss Goodwin collects perishable food donations from the Oregon Convention Center. (Photo credit: Julie Showers)

Elsewhere other supply chains remain intact. The anonymous S.F. hospitality house continues to pick up food from a nearby food bank and a produce wholesaler. However, according to Jones, it no longer accepts individual food donations because of health concerns.

Currently each meal costs 33 cents to make; they could soon to jump to as much as $5.25 apiece.

All the groups Civil Eats spoke to are soliciting donations in anticipation of the day they’ll begin having to buy food.

Kerman at Blanchet House says most of their suppliers are closed, and their supply of perishable food is diminishing. Within a week, he plans to begin buying bulk quantities of shelf-stable pantry items to prepare for a time of want. Currently each meal costs 33 cents to make; when donated food stops coming in and new to-go containers are factored in, they estimate that could to jump to as much as $5.25.

In San Francisco, GLIDE has been working with a coalition of social service organizations to draft plans for long-term solutions. Now that he’s seeing families lining up with children to access his program’s meals, Kim’s appealing to the local school district to open a family food distribution center in the neighborhood because the district’s existing pickup locations are too difficult to reach without a car.

Looking further ahead, Kim sees today’s crisis compounded by an inevitable recession driving more hungry people to their door. Even pre-COVID, the working poor were saving money by showing up for breakfast. Many of his coworkers make little income in a very expensive city and rely on meals at GLIDE. Kim is currently in talks with airline meal providers to find some shelf-stable goods that will free up hands in the kitchen and that can be stockpiled for future emergency shortages. (Update: The Gate Gourmet is now providing meals for GLIDE)

Kerman’s view of the near future is similarly dire. He’s already seeing a lot more women in line, and a lot more youth. “This is going to be a humanitarian crisis of food insecurity and hunger, and I think it’s going to take a massive operation to solve for it. It’s going to be thousands and thousands of meals every day for how long?”

By securing more prepackaged meals, Kim hopes to stretch GLIDE’s resources and “brace ourselves for things getting worse.”

Kim is hearing a lot of anger and frustration from the people in line over the fact that it has taken a public health crisis to spark discussion over emergency services for them. “A lot of them have been chronically homeless or have been disenfranchised in many different ways,” he says. “They recognize that they are the most vulnerable because the necessary support system isn’t there.”

Top photo: Handing out a take-out meal at Blanchet House. (Photo credit: Justin Katigbak)

View Comments (1)

  1. Monday, April 6th, 2020
    Thank you for reporting on the growing need for our to-go meal services during the coronavirus (COVID19) pandemic. Blanchet House needs all the support it can get.