Hungry crowd soup kitchens Feeding city's poor gets harder Volunteers say holidays are the easy ones at soup kitchens.

November 25, 1991|By Laura Lippman and Thomas W. Waldron

This week, hundreds of volunteers will prepare hearty Thanksgiving dinners for the city's hungry, serving plates of turkey and dressing to thousands.

But the same effort goes on every day in Baltimore, with less fanfare. In the soup kitchen culture, Thanksgiving and Christmas are the easy ones.

The other 363 are tough.

Take Wednesday, Nov. 20. In a virtually non-stop effort by dozens of non-profit agencies and churches, more than 5,900 free meals were served from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Homeless people do not consume all the meals. In fact, officials estimate the homeless at about 2,400 on any given day.

The soup kitchen, conceived as an emergency service for people in crisis, has become a fact of life in the city's poorer areas. Some families plan their food budgets knowing they will have to rely on a soup kitchen by month's end.

* More than 40 churches and agencies operate soup kitchens in Baltimore -- up from only 10 eight years ago. Food pantries, which give away non-perishable items, did not exist in the state a decade ago. Now they proliferate.

* Soup kitchens are serving 27 percent more people than they were a year ago, according to an informal survey this month by the Maryland Food Committee. The number is a third greater than in 1989.

* Soup kitchens and food pantries serve only a fraction of those who have trouble finding enough to eat. In city schools, the federal government provides 46,000 free lunches and 11,700 breakfasts every day. The Department of Social Services says 21.9 percent of the city's residents receive food stamps; more are believed to be eligible.

It is difficult to generalize about soup kitchen patrons. Some are homeless. Some have run out of money or their monthly allotments of food stamps and welfare. Some are drunk or strung out on drugs. Some are children.

Some, especially the elderly, count on soup kitchens for camaraderie, as well nutritious meals.

"This ends up being the first line of defense, but this is all there is for a lot of people," said the Rev. Gene Bartell, pastor of First United Evangelical Church in Fells Point, which feeds 200 to 300 people each Wednesday night. "The growth in these programs has just been exponential."

Linda Eisenberg, director of the Maryland Food Committee, cited government programs such as food stamps, free lunches, the Women, Infants and Children's supplemental feeding program and "eating together" programs for senior citizens. They depend on tax dollars.

Today, society relies on non-profit institutions to bridge the gap between need and revenues, Eisenberg said. In fact, most citizens seem to take it for granted.

"We've been too successful at this voluntary effort in some sense," she said. "On the one hand, it's been this magnificent outpouring of support. On the other hand, it's taken the pressure off to find a permanent solution.

"What would happen if the soup kitchens closed down? What if the providers decided to go on strike? What if they said, 'We've done our part and we weren't meant to do this forever.' We need collectively as a community to come up with a real solution for this, not the Band-Aid."

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