What soup kitchens wish they could say about volunteering on Thanksgiving

soup kitchen
soup kitchen

Soup kitchens and food pantries are inundated by requests from well-meaning would-be volunteers and bags of donated groceries during the holidays. But here’s what they’d say, in the nicest possible way, if they were really asked whether they need the help:

“No really, we got this. How about coming to help out another time?”

Clearly, people eager to spend the holiday helping out have excellent intentions—but there are more meaningful, more effective ways to get at the root of hunger and inequality than ladling out gravy once a year.

Here’s what people who work to alleviate hunger every day want you to know before you show up hoping to don a hairnet on Thanksgiving Day.

The holiday awareness glut is followed by a long, cold winter.

Thanksgiving is actually one of the easiest days of the year to find a hot meal if you need one. Many churches and community organizations that don’t function as soup kitchens on the regular serve a meal that day, and there are many programs through schools, daycares and churches that provide families with turkey vouchers and boxes full of staples. John-Harvard Reid, associate executive director of Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen in Manhattan, notes that restaurants that are open on Thanksgiving often make up to-go boxes full of food on Thanksgiving to distribute to people in need.

The day after Thanksgiving, that all changes, says Margarette Purvis, president and CEO of Food Bank For New York City. That Friday actually can be a very tough day to find a hot meal in the city—and there are still months of winter to go.

Your professional skills are likely more useful than your mashed-potato-scooping abilities.

“We get a glut of volunteer requests during this time, from the beginning of November all the way to January,” says Reid, whose soup kitchen serves more than 1,000 meals each weekday, and provides support and services for guests. “It’s appreciated but we really need volunteers in the winter months, in January, February, March. That’s especially tough for us because a lot of our regular volunteers are retirees who don’t like to venture out when it’s either too cold or icy.”

People who are down on their luck also need more than food. They need jobs, training, housing, health care, child care. And they need people with the skills to help them navigate bureaucracies and get the services they need. Your professional skills could be exactly the help a person needs.

“If I have someone who comes and volunteers who’s a lawyer, sometimes I’d rather have them volunteer to give me some free legal help than serve food,” says Tony Butler, executive director of St. John’s Bread and Life, a food pantry and soup kitchen in Brooklyn, New York. “Or if they’re a job coach, or if they can help me line up some jobs for our job training program. Or if they’re a real chef, maybe they can teach some skills or help me retool some recipes.”

Giving money is more efficient than giving cans.

Food pantries and soup kitchens buy a lot of food. There’s a network in place, including government commodity food distributed by Food Bank For New York, wholesale accounts, and long-standing relationships that make their purchasing costs far below the retail prices at the grocery store. “Food donations are a waste of folks’ money,” says Butler, whose programs provide meals to about 3,500 people each day. “I can buy food a lot cheaper than they can.”

This one should be a win-win, as it’s a lot easier to write a check and pop it in the mail than to hit the grocery store and deliver a carload of canned goods. But it’s perhaps a less visible form of charity. “Where people can actually be of support may not provide as many instagrammable moments,” says Purvis.

Hunger is a structural problem, and solving it requires political action.

“Hunger in this country is a symptom of poverty,” says Butler, speaking of the US. “We haven’t had a typhoon or a war or a huge drought. It’s a problem made by people. Certain economic choices have created hunger in this country.” Feeding people who are hungry right now is a relatively simple problem to solve, when compared with addressing the complex reasons for the hunger itself.

In an effort to bring awareness to the systemic issues that contribute to hunger, Food Bank For New York releases an annual report and study the week of Thanksgiving each year. This year the report, Trade-Offs at the Dinner Table, released on Nov. 20, focused on the effects of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The group argues that the program benefits the entire community, not just the recipients, pointing out that in Brooklyn alone, SNAP benefits created over $1 billion in retail food sales every year. “They [SNAP recipients] are answering a need for retailers, as well by the money they are spending locally in their communities,” she says.

The government may fund SNAP, but most local food pantries and soup kitchens are primarily run through private donations. The Farm Bill, which determines a great deal about SNAP funding, heads to Congress for reauthorization in 2018. Advocating for SNAP with your representatives, and citing the wider economic impacts of the program for small businesses and communities, is another potent way to address hunger.

It’s not a non-profit’s job to make you feel good.

When so much of the operating budget comes from donors, organizations feel an immense pressure to give potential donors and volunteers what they want—which is often a feel-good experience. Purvis said new would-be volunteers often get upset that there aren’t any open slots to come and volunteer on Thanksgiving, when they’ve been booked for months by regulars. “Unless they’re the best kind of supporter who you can say to, ‘Can you come on Friday?'” (Be that best kind of supporter!)

Butler said he tries to educate new volunteers, gently. “One of the dangers is that the least impactful volunteering is simply to make the volunteer feel good, that they’ve done something,” he says. “They in their mind have responded to a problem. I want to move folks from that, move them [to see] they have both an obligation and the power to address this, on many different levels, to start reframing it that way.”

Hungry people are people, end of story.

If you truly want to volunteer, and especially if you want to bring your family, remember that you’re feeding humans. They’re not walking lessons for yourself or your children about how fortunate you are to have what you have. Don’t make it into poverty tourism. Don’t snap a million selfies. Don’t take photos without asking. Do be kind, polite and ready to connect—or to give space to guests who don’t want to interact.

And by all means, do volunteer. “A day of service here is one of the things we promote. It is teaching that giving back is important,” says Reid. “It should never be at the expense of our guests.”

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