Through its soup kitchen and Amazing Grace Food Pantry, St. Vincent de Paul, Middletown has provided meals and groceries to those in need for 43 years.
Our soup kitchen opened with a shelter on Main Street in 1980 as a response to homelessness in our city. The kitchen was modeled after what Dorothy Day started in New York City during the Great Depression: a place to get a warm meal and fellowship.
Today, we’ve expanded our soup kitchen model to do much more than feed people and provide fellowship. As our community and its needs change, so must our programs for those in need.
Nothing has affected our soup kitchen guests more than the opioid crisis. Today, death from opioid drug use is a norm and one we see every day in the soup kitchen. Our staffers have saved many lives in the last three years by administering NARCAN during an overdose.
While we saved lives by feeding and sheltering people, we have to do much more today to help our soup kitchen guests work toward recovery. Recovery takes many shapes and is specific to each individual. It can be recovery from homelessness, recovery from alcohol and drug addiction, recovery from domestic violence and abuse, recovery from toxic relationships.
We’ve thought long and hard about recovery in our soup kitchen and in the last two years have transformed the program to a recovery model of care.
First, we revamped the dining room into an inviting space. We transformed how we prepare and serve food. We added a salad bar, cut out desserts and now cook most meats and fish in a convection oven and use healthy fats. Organic eggs come from our backyard chickens daily, and we serve whole grains.
There’s no shortage of meals: guests can have seconds whenever they want more during breakfast and lunch. We educated our guests and surveyed them on what they want to eat. Working with our community food drive groups, we were able to provide them with healthy options in abundance.
Preparing healthy meals, growing our own food and providing choices has strengthened the diets of our guests and given them greater ability to maintain their health.
Secondly, we had to heal our guests’ spirit and minds, often so stricken with mental illness and addictions.
We brought in master-level occupational students and opened the dining room every afternoon to provide programs that engaged our guests in healthy activities, such as trivia, chess, karaoke, gardening, fishing trips and cell phone and computer training. Known as occupational justice, the activities provide the framework for our guests to learn positive socialization skills, engage in healthy activities and reduce addiction, along with the stigma that can come with mental illness.
As part of our weekly Clean Crew, guests sign up to clean our Main Street and its storefronts. It’s a way to give back to our community. Each guest who volunteers gets a gift card in return for their labor. The pride they feel and the thanks they receive from our business community lifts their spirits. They are seen as an asset rather than a problem in our city.
Our farm-to-table gardening program allows the students to take guests to tend crops and then enjoy eating what they grow. Guests can also volunteer daily in the kitchen by cleaning, stocking, dishwashing and tidying the grounds. They receive a gift card for their efforts.
We have a social worker and licensed clinician in the dining room weekly to connect guests to treatment, mental health care, substance abuse treatment and housing. The dining room, rich with access to services in the community, eliminates the cumbersome, complex system to provide access to treatment on all fronts.
Vinnie and Paula, our resident pet rabbits, are trained to be in our offices. Guests are welcome to visit them, and they provide joy for our staff, who work so hard and often spend a few minutes with the rabbits to ease their day. Offering a non-judgmental, peaceful and soothing relationship, rabbits are known to be very effective around individuals with trauma histories.
Our chickens, known as the Holy Hens, not only provide organic eggs. They and the rabbits eat most of our produce waste we would otherwise put in the trash. We are doing our small part to reduce our carbon footprint.
Our recovery programs give guests a safe place to be together, learn coping strategies, gain sobriety and abstain from drugs. The work is based on simple principles. As the saying goes, “Give a person a fish to eat and they eat for a day. Teach a person to fish and they eat for life.”
The program teaches individuals how to live in their community with greater ability to make better choices, reduce alcoholism and other addictions, gain greater mental health and begin to believe they can overcome what has kept them at our soup kitchen.
Most soup kitchens and food pantries measure success on how many meals were served or how many pounds of food were given. While these outcomes are impressive and provide food security to many, we must look to the underlying issues of food insecurity for truly reaching sustainable outcomes to those we serve.
The outcomes for success of our recovery services are much smaller than in our meals served and pounds of food provided. Our recovery services work to give guests a path to change habits that keep them oppressed, ill and at risk of dying far too young.
Our core mission is to provide meals and groceries, supportive housing and a safety net. We will continue to work on recovery initiatives, and to strengthen those we serve so that they may live and thrive.
By MaryEllen Shuckerow