Nonfiction in response to Zero Hunger
By Ilana Arougheti
At the sprawling Cathedral Kitchen complex in Camden, New Jersey, the floodgates open daily at 4 p.m. sharp; 12 p.m. on the weekends. As the day’s crew of 20-25 volunteers finishes setting the tables with homemade placemats and assembling stations for everything from drinks to job counseling all around the room, one executive chef and two cooks begin to plate the first of the afternoon’s meals – approximately 300-325 portions of which will be brought to the table every day – and guests trickle into the cheerful space en masse. 50% of them are homeless. The other 50% live and work under circumstances of poverty. But all are greeted with respect and served a nutritious free meal, no questions asked, with a take-home bag of sandwiches placed beside their plate to tide themselves and their families over until the kitchen reopens the following day. Next door, a second crew of chefs has already been at work for hours preparing another 1600 meals in conjunction with Volunteers of America, slated for distribution to various local shelters, afterschool programs, and halfway houses.
The preparation and distribution of close to two thousand free meals a day is no simple feat. But the 42 full-time staff members at Cathedral Kitchen are more than up to the challenge. Camden, New Jersey, is the city with the third lowest median household income in America, according to the most recent census. More than a third of its residents live in poverty. And as the largest emergency food services provider in the city, Cathedral Kitchen’s determination to feed and assist Camden residents has only grown stronger since the organization’s founding in 1976.
“We use food to change lives,” said Noreen Flewelling, Cathedral Kitchen’s Development Director. “Cathedral Kitchen has a wonderful reputation in the community for helping those in need.”
The kitchen serves approximately 100,000 meals a year, with over 1 million meals served since its inception 42 years ago. Each meal that the Kitchen prepares consists of a protein, a vegetable, a starch, and a dessert. The Kitchen also offers its guests a daily market stand, where dinner guests can pick up fresh produce, packaged goods, and other donated items to bring back with them. A rotation of outside health service organizations often feature at a table in the dining room as well, offering services ranging from blood pressure screening to HIV testing. Twice a week, benefits counselors come to the kitchen to assist guests in applying for food stamps – these visits helped 150 Camden households generate $300,000 worth of benefits in 2017 alone.
“Pretty much anyone you meet in Camden is familiar with our services,” said Flewelling. “We have a really strong reputation. Our dinner guests trust us.”
While the Kitchen enjoys widespread support from volunteers including student groups and employees of community businesses, Flewelling explains that their most frequent volunteer demographic is local retirees hoping to give back. 2 to 4 recurring volunteers return to the Kitchen to act as meal captains on specific nights of the week or month. Often, volunteer organizations from up and down the East Coast send groups to stay in one of Camden’s two “retreat houses,” so that volunteers can spend the night in the city and then divide their time between Cathedral Kitchen and other local nonprofits the next day. Flewelling believes that this is what renders Cathedral Kitchen unique; the immense compassion of its volunteers and staff members.
“[They] just want to help their fellow man,” said Flewelling. “You feel their joy.”
Since the organization’s humble beginnings, when four founders inspired by an International Eucharistic Congress session hosted by Mother Teresa began to serve guests volunteer-baked casseroles, its services have expanded significantly. After a 2008 move to its current Cathedral Street location and a 2014 expansion to a second building with a functioning commercial kitchen, Cathedral Kitchen’s current services include culinary classes, job training programs, health care, dental services and a functioning for-profit cafe. In order to maintain daily operations, the Kitchen receives much of its ingredient supply from supermarkets and food delivery services like U.S. Foods, Trader Joe’s, BJ’s, and Blue Apron. These partnerships allow the Kitchen to serve fresh fruits and vegetables, and provides a good way for food set to expire within the next few days to be freshly prepared while still within its peak edibility. After winning a grant last year, the Kitchen was able to purchase a refrigerated truck, making it easier for them to receive and transport perishable items. Individual families, religious establishments, and civil organizations also donate frequently to the Kitchen, although their donated food must come in a form compliant with county health codes.
Along with these donations, as well as monetary donations from various companies and independent parties, the Kitchen raises capital by hosting an annual Harvest for Hunger fundraiser. Attendees enjoy a meal prepared by the Cathedral Kitchen chefs and culinary trainees, along with a wine tasting, a silent auction, and a raffle. The most recent Harvest raised over $125,000 to support the Kitchen’s programs.
Flewelling and her colleagues are proud of the support and nutrition that they are able to provide for their community. Flewelling noted that many families come to the Kitchen each night for food in order to be able to stretch their existing funds to pay bills and utilities. She also noted that working at the Kitchen has taught her that there is more to the faces of hunger that meets the eye.
“Just this week, I met a Rutgers student. He’s going for his MSW and he can’t afford to survive going to school, he’d eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every night if he wasn’t coming here for his meals,” Flewelling reflected. “It’s not easy coming to a soup kitchen for your meals…but they’re here for a reason, and when you get the opportunity to sit down and talk to the dinner guests, they all greatly appreciate everything that we’re doing for them here.”
In order to dispel the stigma surrounding soup kitchen attendance, Cathedral Kitchen personnel strive to create a welcoming environment for their guests by bringing food to their table instead of relying on a standing soup line, and encourage volunteers to be courteous at all times.
“The biggest thing that all of our volunteers and staff live by is that it’s really important to serve all of our guests with respect and dignity,” said Flewelling.
As Cathedral Kitchen’s well-oiled machine of food delivery, meal programs, and community assistance continues to support Camden residents through each new day, Flewelling and her colleagues continue to keep their eye on Cathedral Kitchen’s ultimate purpose; fighting hunger for the sake of the community.
“We live in a very wealthy country, and there is so much food that is wasted,” said Flewelling. “If we can be the source to redirect that food and help those in need... we’re just acting as the middle person and trying to help people get back on their feet and get a fresh start. A meal is a small price to pay.”