Thursday, March 21, 2013

My time at Shepherd's Table Soup Kitchen

As I've mentioned in earlier posts, I'm spending this first week of my sabbatical working for the Shepherd's Table Soup Kitchen feeding a good, hot lunch to those who need it.  I chose this particular place because it serves food to anyone who shows up; it takes no Federal money, so it doesn't have to qualify the guests or ask any information of them.  Though the group is religious, it doesn't require any particular religion of the guests.  I love the simplicity of its approach:  if you're hungry, come on down, and we'll feed you. 

The place operates on a shoestring budget, but thanks to the Interfaith Food Shuttle, lots of donations, and a crew composed almost entirely of volunteers, it feeds between 250 and 300 people at lunch five days a week.  So far this week, we've fed something like (these totals may be off slightly) 276, 269, 259, and 289 guests. 

Note the term "guests."  Part of the goal is to treat each diner as our guest, from when one of us greets them at the door, to when we serve them food, to when one of us bids them farewell.  "Treat each and every person with dignity," the team lead, a woman who's been volunteering there for over thirty years, told our group on Monday.  After four days of work, I'm happy to report that everyone I've seen interact with our guests has done just that. 

The meal we prepare is substantial:  meat, starch, veg, salad, sandwich (or pizza slice), fruit, dessert, and beverage (water, tea, and sometimes milk and/or juice).  Each guest gets the same basic serving size of each item, and each chooses which courses he or she wants, though most want some of everything. 

The room seats 80, and we serve for just one hour, so obviously the whole process relies on each guest eating reasonably quickly and then clearing a space for the next person. As the above numbers show, the guests do just that.  Everyone is, in fact, remarkably more pleasant and cooperative than the crowd at most sandwich shops or cafeterias. 

The volunteers are a mixed bunch, with lots of regulars, on some days groups from schools, and a few first-timers and oddballs like me.  The regulars go about their business with rhythm and good humor, and they also do a good job of integrating the rest of us. 

The teams work by days, a different team for each day of the week.  This approach has meant that I'm the only non-staffer working every day this week, and it's also yielded an odd phenomenon:  each day I know more, but each day I look like a fresh face to the day's team.  Fortunately, proving what I know is easy and quick, so I've gotten to work on just about every aspect of the prep, setup, cooking, serving, and cleaning up workflow.

I'm still processing a lot of what I've seen and learned, and I'm finding some of those lessons to be about myself.  That is a very good thing.

Of one thing, though, I am already certain:  The mission of Shepherd's Table is righteous, and the people who make it happen are doing good work.  I am proud to have been able to work alongside them this week.  


Bill Catchings said...

Very cool. I look forward to hearing more about your experiences!

Mark said...

Thanks. I look forward to discussing them.


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