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Seasons Magazines

Cooking Up Comfort

New Haven Community Soup Kitchen makes sure there’s always food on the table

The need to constantly find ways to feed the 42 million Americans who would otherwise go hungry is no easy task. Connecticut may be among the top five wealthiest states in the country, but it is not immune to the national hunger crisis.

Fortunately, cities like New Haven are doing a remarkable job of keeping people fed. This is achieved mostly through grassroots, nonprofit organizations that rely heavily on volunteers – organizations like the New Haven Community Soup Kitchen, which is marking its 40th anniversary this year as the longest operating modern-day soup kitchen in the city.

With only a paid staff of four, an intern (through the Episcopal Service Corps), and an all-volunteer board, the Soup Kitchen provides free, nutritious lunches four days a week and breakfast on Saturdays at its main location in the Parish House at Christ Church Episcopal on Broadway.

The Soup Kitchen also works with its associates at nearby Saint Luke’s Church to provide a lunch program for needy women and children, as well as offering breakfast at four other sites.

Last year, the Community Soup Kitchen served a whopping total of 72,444 meals – 2 percent more than in 2015.

Other on-site services have included free flu shots by nurses from Hill Health Center and free HIV testing by Liberty Community Services.

“We work together with neighborhood groups to help meet the need wherever we can,” says David O’Sullivan, executive director.

O’Sullivan began as a volunteer at the soup kitchen in the early 1980s and has been its executive director for the past 30 years, giving him a unique, historical perspective.

“When I first started here, on a busy day we may have served 50 or 60 meals,” he says. “We now average 250 meals a day, just [at this location]. The traditional soup kitchen guest was an older white male, probably an alcoholic. What’s happened over the years is the population has gotten younger, there are more drugs involved, there’s a lot more mental illness, and so factors have changed.”

He notes that that there is also more ethnic and racial diversity today. Most guests – 70 to 75 percent – continue to be male.

Last August, O’Sullivan suffered a stroke and was hospitalized for four weeks. It became apparent that the Soup Kitchen had become too dependent on one person. “Ninety-percent of what we do was in my head,” he says.

As a result, he has been delegating more to other staff members, including his assistant Karen Comstock, and with the help of the board of directors, building a more active and involved volunteer base.

Serving Up Meals

Meals are served buffet-style by volunteers who come in one, two, or three days a week. Some individuals have been volunteering for more than 20 years. About half of the meals are served in the dining area, and the other half are take-out.

Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners have the biggest turnouts.

Thanksgiving (served the Tuesday before) averages about 300 people, which translates into 20 or 30 cooked turkeys, 90 pounds of sweet potatoes, and 60 pounds of stuffing. Christmas dinner, which will be served on Christmas Day this year, offers a similar menu. The soup kitchen also serves the only free breakfast available in New Haven on Thanksgiving Day, from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m.

“Even though we’re on the Episcopal Church property, we’re non-denominational and so we try to make the holiday festive, but not religious,” says O’Sullivan.

“Some of the homeless and at-risk population have family members who will take weird uncle so-and-so into their house, but some don’t,” Comstock adds. “Elderly people [may] come here to eat as much because they’re isolated as because they’re needing food. You’re not sitting alone in your house, watching a TV movie about how everyone has a family and a big house. It’s hard. Their hunger is for companionship.”
Comstock and O’Sullivan are happy to see people are making better food choices in recent years.

“When you give people a choice, they will often go for the healthier [item],” O’Sullivan says.

“A full third of guests insist on whole wheat bread,” Comstock says. “We’ve learned that it’s not that people don’t want healthy food, it’s that it’s not available to them. We run out of fresh produce every day.”

Robert Jackson is the dining room supervisor and Sherry Williams is the cook.

Williams has been preparing well-rounded meals every day, based on recently arrived donations, since she started working at the Soup Kitchen eight years ago. It’s a very challenging job because she never knows if there will be more people than usual coming through the door that day.

“I always find something, whip something up,” Williams says. “There’s always something in the pantry or refrigerator. I keep the water boiling in the pots so I can always throw something in. I cook more rice than Chinese people!”

She adds, “It’s a lot of work. It can be overwhelming. But as long as I’m getting people fed, that’s what matters.”

Procuring Food and Funding

The Community Soup Kitchen receives a substantial amount of food from the Connecticut Food Bank, but also reaps the benefits of being located in a food Mecca like New Haven.

“Every Thursday, we get meat from Ferraro’s Market,” O’Sullivan says. “Another very generous local food contributor is Longhini Sausage Company.”

“Chefs will show up with armloads of delicious food on their way home,” Comstock says. “It’s really nice.”

Starbucks and Atticus Bookstore Cafe also provide bread and bakery items. Yale New Haven Hospital donates cases of fruit.

Every week, O’Sullivan stops by the Entenmann’s Bakery thrift store in Orange, where he lives.

“They usually give me a whole rack of bread, which will get us through the week,” he says.

Supermarkets such as Stop & Shop and ShopRite also regularly donate food.

This year’s operating budget is $315,000. Community Soup Kitchen doesn’t receive state or federal funds, but it does receive grants from many local organizations and foundations.

“Most of our money actually comes from individuals – small contributions,” O’Sullivan says. “We have a mailing list of about 2,500 names.”
Fundraisers, particularly at the holidays, are also excellent revenue sources – a time when individuals and businesses generously open their pocketbooks.

For example, the Bowl-a-Thon held at Creative Arts Workshop is in its 21st year and raised $8,000 in 2016. For a donation starting at $15, participants get a ceramic bowl created by studio potters, faculty, and students; soup donated by several different local restaurants; and bread from various local sources.

“It’s a unique event,” O’Sullivan says. “It brings together two different communities – people helping the soup kitchen, and people who support and enjoy the arts.”

Christy’s Irish Pub is the site of another big event, now in its 11th year. For a $15 suggested donation at the door, people can partake in drink specials, a buffet, a silent auction, and a raffle.

“Christy’s works hard to get sponsorships and donations from local businesses,” O’Sullivan says. “It’s been a really good event for us. Last year, it made about $20,000.”

O’Sullivan and Comstock agree with Williams that as hard as this job can be, it’s all about getting people fed.

“For me, it’s living my faith,” O’Sullivan says. “It’s nice to go to church on Sunday, and I’m not putting anyone down for going to church on Sunday, but doing this, it’s very easy to see the effort and the results. We start at the beginning of the day with 90 pounds of spaghetti sauce and 30 pounds of spaghetti, and at the end of the day, we’ve fed 250 people.”

He admits, “It’s frustrating when I see people coming here for 20 years who are still in the same pattern. Yet, what we’re doing is so basic and so needed, if we weren’t here, the problems would get worse.”

Comstock started volunteering two years ago after being laid off from her job. After O’Sullivan’s stroke, she was “given the keys” and hired on staff.

“This is my dream job,” Comstock says. “I’ve done mailing and IT for years. I’m now doing something that’s actually making a difference. I’m not mailing junk mail to people.

“When a big grant comes in that I’ve written, there’s no rush that’s greater than that,” she says. “We just received a $40,000 grant from Walmart – the biggest individual grant the soup kitchen has ever received from a company. It was wonderful, a complete thrill.”

For more information on fundraisers, to make a donation, or inquire about volunteering, visit online or call 203-624-4594.

The Community Soup Kitchen is located at Christ Church Episcopal, 84 Broadway, New Haven.

Photography by NICK CAITO