By Tracy Wright
Soup kitchens have a long history in the United States. They were first established in the early 19th Century but were popularized after the Great Depression in 1929 when numerous people needing assistance lined up for hot meals served by churches and private charities.
The concept of the soup kitchen still exists across the country, though the term itself and the mission have changed. Now known as meal programs, they exist in a variety of forms and often offer many other types of services for those in need, such as shelter, social services, physical and mental health providers, clothing, case management, and job and living placement.
Nationally, hunger and food insecurity are key issues because it affects literally every community in the country. A 2014 Feeding America survey found that more than 60 percent of families suffering from hunger or food insecurity have to choose between food and utilities, transportation or medical care.
According to the Salvation Army, each night in the U.S., 17.4 million families go to bed hungry, and an additional 6.9 million families experience very low food security, which means they do not always know where their next meal is coming from. Approximately 41 million Americans struggle from hunger; of those, 13 million are children and 5 million are seniors.
In our community, one in five are hungry and one in four of those are children. There are two meal program locations that serve hot food daily — Grace Marketplace and St. Francis House.
Located on 413 S. Main Street, St. Francis House provides emergency, temporary and permanent supportive housing. Temporary housing is available at their shelter for 35 individuals—men, women or children. Those staying in temporary receive three hot meals a day. In addition, approximately 200 public meals are served daily between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m. and they offer public phone access, transportation passes, laundry services, and clothing vouchers.
St. Francis House also offer social and educational services and case management to help those who may need compassionate assistance and guidance to help move their lives forward. They are supported via a combination of private funding support, volunteers and volunteer organizations and in-kind donations.
Grace Marketplace is supported by the City of Gainesville and Alachua County and is located at 3055 NE 28th Drive in Gainesville. In February, Grace served its 100,000th meal since opening in 2014.
“At Grace Marketplace, we like to say that we are like a bicycle wheel — we provide people resources to help them get their wheel rolling,” said Travis Middleton, director of Community Engagement at Grace Marketplace. “One of the biggest misconceptions that people have is that people who come here are lazy and don’t want to do anything. That’s simply not true; people have lost everything they have and have no friends or family who can assist them.”
Grace Marketplace serves three meals, five days a week and serves brunch and an early dinner on the weekends. They also offer a brown bag lunch program for people who need to grab lunch before heading to appointments for social services or medical needs. However, resources in the county for food go beyond just meals. There are also services to provide families with food to take home to cook themselves.
Bread of the Mighty Food Bank is a private, nonprofit organization that has been serving the community for 30 years — providing donated food and basic living items to 180+ nonprofit agency partners such as food pantries, churches, homeless shelters and other organizations who then distribute food in their communities to directly feed the hungry. They serve people in Alachua, Dixie, Gilchrist, Lafayette and Levy counties, and in fiscal year 2015-2016 they provided food for 505,452 people.
“Our goals are to shorten the food lines and help more people feed their families and stay healthy,” said Loretta Griffis, director of community outreach at Bread of the Mighty. “The most vulnerable of our population — children and seniors — suffer the most because of their inability to travel to food pantries or food centers. That is why we believe in what we do so passionately. Oftentimes, mobile food pantries and school pantries are the only ways they will be able to obtain food.”
Bread of the Mighty has established six food pantries at various schools, but their support for local schools does not stop there. They answered a local high school’s football coach’s request to help his players that were struggling to eat enough food to keep up their daily routines.
“He was desperate to help his players. In addition to their daily school routines, they were practicing for 2-3 hours in Florida weather,” Griffis said. “He knew that most of his players didn’t have enough food for a normal day let alone one that required as much energy as it did to practice and play football. He asked if we could provide food for his players and we happily accepted. Some of his players gained 10-15 pounds over the season. We continue to offer them food and now have another high school football team for which we also provide food.”
Bread of the Mighty also has a partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to coordinate the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which provides food to eligible elderly individuals in need by giving USDA-donated foods through a monthly food package distributed through agency partners.
“Seniors are typically homebound and often their pride prevents them from asking for help,” Griffis said. “They may not have family locally or family assistance at all. We have had people travel to our mobile pantries with walkers where they will hang bags of food from. It’s often the only food they receive all month.”
Gainesville Community Ministry helps provide assistance to the elderly, the disabled and recipients of public assistance, as well as the “working poor,” who are prone to economic downfalls and may have gotten lost in society. One of these programs is a food pantry that provides food for these populations during times when food is otherwise unavailable due to limited incomes. A two-day supply is given to each member of the household every month.
“Many people are hanging on by a thread. One third of the population in Gainesville is at or below the poverty level. A need may arise like a medical need or repair for which available money is used, and food is cut back for the family,” said Michael Wright, executive director of the Gainesville Community Ministry. “More people are being affected by the rising costs in gas and food prices. We have about 100 new families each month needing help.”
Whether it is food centers, food banks or food pantries, these operations would not be able to provide these services without the assistance of individual citizens and groups wishing to help those that are hungry. In 2016, Bread of the Mighty had more than 3,800 volunteers who donated almost 12,000 hours of their time to help provide assistance to the charity. Those 12,000 hours of volunteerism are equivalent to approximately 5.7 years of unpaid work, Griffis said.
All these organizations have volunteer opportunities and a need for donations. While people and groups typically donate and volunteer around holidays like Thanksgiving, these types of services are in need year-round. All types of volunteers are welcome, but donations go the furthest. Feeding America estimates that every dollar donated can provide 10 meals. “Our greatest need is for donated funds. We offer many programs to help people break free of the bonds of poverty. They all cost money to operate,” Wright said.
For those looking to help and see the true impact one person can make, Grace Marketplace invites people wanting to volunteer to sign up to serve meals or purchase and prepare dinner in their facility for 200 people. They also offer specialized meal packages for purchase where ingredients will arrive at GRACE on the date of the service ready to prepare and cook. “The food package is a really awesome experience for the many groups who sign up,” Middleton said. “They enjoy fixing the meals together and then serving it to the community members.”
Gainesville Community Ministry also operates Project 5000 Food Boxes, which allows community members to purchase a box and fill it with food supplies that will feed a family of four for two days. It is estimated to cost $25 per box.
ElderCare of Alachua County operates Meals on Wheels which offer meal sites and home-delivered meals for seniors. There are six meal sites throughout Alachua County that offer hot lunches. Meals on Wheels also delivers meals to homebound seniors that not only provide nutrition to the person but the personal contact from the volunteer.
The Food4Kids Backpack program was founded by a group of parents who were concerned that our county’s children did not have enough food to eat once they left their schools. Through the volunteer organization, backpacks are filled with nonperishable food and distributed to students in need, from elementary through high school. After bringing them home on Friday, the school children can return them after the weekend to be refilled for the following weekend. Larger boxes of food are also provided for extended holidays and summer breaks. The Food4Kids programs partners with local schools to identify the needs in the community and work with local food banks, faith-based organizations and local businesses to create a support network.
All these services’ main goal is simple: to help feed those in need. The needs of the community are complex and there is a significant necessity to find those that are hungry and need help, Griffis said. “It’s a big problem that most people don’t even realize. As communities, we need to help our neighbors,” she said. “You cannot put a face on hunger. Our work is truly never done.”
For more information about Bread of the Mighty Food Bank visit www.breadofthemighty.org or call (352) 336-0839.
For more information about Grace Marketplace, visit gracemarketplace.org or call (352) 792-0800.
For more information about St. Francis House, visit stfrancishousegnv.org or call (352) 378-9079.
For more information about Gainesville Community Ministry, visit gcmhelp.org or call (352) 372-8162.
For more information about Meals on Wheels, visit https://eldercare.ufhealth.org/services/meals-on-wheels/ or call (352) 265-9040.
For more information about Food4Kids, visit www.food4kids.org or call (352) 514-0281.