Bread lines have all but disappeared from today’s soup kitchens. In their places, various kinds of kitchens have opened, offering a more family-friendly atmosphere for people in need or on the edge.
• Urban Diner at the Matt Urban Hope Center on Paderewski Drive, which offers a sit-down dinner served restaurant-style by a staff members who learn job skills while helping others.
• Heart, Love and Soul Pantry and Kitchen in Niagara Falls, where families take their seats at the breakfast table before taking advantage of enrichment programs that stress fitness, art and nutrition.
• Central City Café, operated by Durham Memorial AME Zion Church in Buffalo, where lunch clients can get second helpings and avail themselves of shower facilities and a wide-screen television. A new Baby Café, the first in New York State that caters to the nutritional needs of young mothers who want to nurse their babies, also has opened at the church on East Eagle Street.
• Friendly Kitchen in Dunkirk, which serves three restaurant-style meals a day.
The idea behind these new soup kitchens is not only to offer meals to families in a more dignified atmosphere, but also to present additional services to help people overcome their difficult situations. In Buffalo, where the poverty rate for children is 46.8 percent, that is especially important.
“The reality is that a majority of the people at a soup kitchen are not homeless. They are intact families who are poor,” said Mark Dunlea, executive director for Hunger Action Network, a statewide organization that addresses the causes of hunger and poverty.
“We call ourselves an emergency food program, but it’s not like we’re trying to tide them over. We’re serving people who basically do not make enough money to feed their family.”
New poverty data released earlier this month by the American Community Survey indicated high rates of childhood poverty in upstate New York cities. The data showed a majority of children in some major upstate cities live in poverty: 53.9 percent in Rochester, 53 percent in Syracuse and 50.8 percent in Schenectady. Albany’s poverty rate among children is 37 percent.
Last year, the Food Bank of Western New York distributed more than 463,000 pounds of food to 20 soup kitchens in Erie, Niagara, Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties, according to Christine Rivera, services director for the agency.
“Besides feeding people, emergency food programs consistently focus more on the self-esteem of their guests and work to improve the nutritional quality of the food they serve,” Dunlea said during a phone interview from his office in New York City. “Thirty percent have a special program targeting infants or young people.”
Here’s a closer look at three of the locations:
Through a partnership with Friends of Night People, the Urban Diner serves dinner from 3 to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Each day, the diner serves an average of 55 meals at its East Side location near the Central Terminal, according to Joyelle Tedeschi, director of the Matt Urban Hope Center.
“You would not know you are going into a soup kitchen,” Tedeschi said. “We want to make sure families are able to eat together, but we also want to offer opportunities for people to gain job skills because we know employment is necessary to get people out of poverty.”
Tasha Moore was homeless at one point in her life. Now the 40-year-old mother of five has worked as a hostess at the Urban Diner since it opened in November 2009.
“I lived on the street where I could,” Moore said. “I would sleep in an abandoned house by myself. As long as nobody knew you were in there, you’d be OK. I was scared, but that’s where I slept. I was addicted to drugs real bad. I was on crack for 15 years.”
Moore said she sometimes slept in the laundry room of an apartment complex curled up under the folding table. She now lives in an apartment in the Kensington-Bailey neighborhood, and she hopes to one day turn the skills learned at the Urban Diner into a restaurant job.
Nakia Luper, 38, and her son William Gregory, 5, walked to the diner one recent Friday from their apartment around the corner on Sears Street. Luper, who eats at the diner about three days each week, said she is on disability and suffers from schizophrenia. To avoid crowds at the diner, Luper visits shortly after it opens or right before closing.
“This is a good place,” Luper said about the Hope Center. “They help me get food stamps and housing.”
Central City Café
Central City Café offers lunch daily to 100 people at Durham Memorial Outreach Community Center, 200 E. Eagle St.
It features second helpings, a flat-screen TV and shower privileges for those who are in-between homes. The amenities go a long way toward increasing the self-esteem of clients, as does the homegrown produce served at the café.
The 1,200-square-foot organic garden was donated in 2010 by the former Sheehan Health Network. In its first year, the Garden of Stewardship produced 300 pounds of vegetables. In 2012, the harvest was 400 pounds.
This year, with the sale of nearby Sheehan to McGuire Development Co., said Diann Holt, a member of the United Way’s Early Childhood Obesity Prevention Committee, the garden planting is well behind schedule. Ninety percent of the garden is dedicated to Central City Café with the remainder reserved for a community garden that includes two beds for the Baby Café.
For two nights each week, babies rule the roost at Central City, where the Baby Café was born April 4.
Popular in Britain, baby cafés are free drop-in centers for pregnant and new moms seeking information about or help with breast-feeding. In this country, the number of baby cafés is growing, said Holt, who is also Baby Café coordinator.
“We recognized that breast-feeding was one of the ways to prevent childhood obesity,” Holt said. “So why don’t we start with the mom?”
For first-time mom Virginia Kaufman, of Amherst, the Baby Café is all about learning.
“I had no idea about breast-feeding,” Kaufman said. “You can’t do it on your own. It’s very painful in the beginning, and it’s very easy to go off with a bottle and formula. At the Baby Café, they try to remind you of why you are doing it. It’s really good for the baby.”
Kaufman is a physician’s assistant who specializes in infectious diseases. She and her husband had volunteered for three years at Central City Café serving food on holidays. When the Baby Café opened, Kaufman decided to bring their son, 2-month-old Oliver.
The Baby Café is open from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, serving more than hot meals for the moms. In addition, a nutritionist and certified lactation specialist are present to answer questions. In a relaxed, informal setting stocked with a reference library, new mothers say they feel comfortable learning how to nurse.
Holt decided to open the Baby Café after noting an increasing number of young mothers with their children at the soup kitchen during summer.
“I saw moms feeding infants from a tray, and I thought that we needed a place where moms can learn what they need to understand good nutrition for their children,” explained Holt, who also serves as Central City Café chaplain. “People do better when they know better.”
The startup date for the café – April 4 – is a significant one for African-Americans, Holt said.
“We opened on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination,” she said. “We were looking to mark how far we’ve come.”