The Trenton Area Soup Kitchen Relies on Individual Donors and Volunteers
By Becky Melvin
A surprising number of Princeton residents volunteer at the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, or TASK, on a weekly or monthly basis.
They leave from places like Trinity Church, the Jewish Center of Princeton, the Unitarian Universalists Congregation, Princeton United Methodist Church, Nassau Presbyterian Church, St. Paul's Roman Catholic Church, and Princeton University.
Their destination is a one-story building on a short, dead end street, not far from Trenton's Perry Street. And in this utilitarian-looking place, about 20 minutes from home, volunteers tutor, serve "on the line," wrap flatware, or help with various activity programs.
But most volunteers don't care as much about what they do as how they do it and the response they receive.
"I was motivated to get out of the classroom, out of the consulting room, and out of the research room," said TASK volunteer Susan Darley, who is a Princeton-based psychologist.
"I like the busy, unpredictable environment, where things can turn on a dime," she said.
She was "stunned" by response to what is now a popular TASK program, called the "photo op" program.
Photo op was born one day when a mother was talking about her desire to get a "real portrait" taken of her child. She referred wistfully to portraits taken in fancy stores where infants are photographed with baby blankets.
Ms. Darley said she happened to have in her car a blanket and her own child's point-and-shoot camera. Grabbing those, they positioned the child and blanket strategically, and snapped.
The mother was extremely pleased. Then everybody wanted a picture, Ms. Darley said. So she obliged.
Today, Ms. Darley carries around a wooden box full of 3x5 photos, ready to give someone their picture when she sees them. She is known on the street as "Picture Lady." Many other TASK programs have been home grown in similar ways, she said.
Demand for TASK services is on the rise, and the place literally hums with activity from 9 a.m. until 6 at night.
The nonprofit, charitable organization is now serving about 2,800 meals a week, up from 2,500 meals a week in 2002. In addition it aims to create a community center atmosphere to foster self-esteem and self-sufficiency.
It does so by offering services and programs such as telephone and Internet service for job searches; adult education; and activities like Arts and Ideas, a program that provides materials for drawing, painting, and collage, as well as a time and place for patrons to meet to talk about the arts and issues of interest or concern.
Meals are balanced three-course affairs, including entrée, vegetables, fresh salad, bread, and dessert. One recent dinner included turkey noodle casserole, while another featured a chicken and spaghetti dish.
At its Escher Street location, TASK serves eight meals a week, including five midday meals, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and three late afternoon meals, served Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, from 4 to 6 p.m.
Last month, TASK added a second evening meal served at an off-site kitchen, which it's operating in collaboration with part of Catholic Charities, in south Trenton. The meals are served there on Wednesday and Thursday, from 5:30 to 7 p.m.
TASK's primary goal is to feed Trenton's hungry, and it's the only soup kitchen in town operating during the workweek. On weekends, several churches and the Rescue Mission take up feeding, Cathy Ann Vandergrift, TASK's assistant director, said. "But people know if they need a meal Monday through Friday, this is where they come."
Occasionally at meals, socks that have been collected are passed out; or at the beginning of the school year, children receive donated school supplies. In winter, donated hats and gloves are distributed. And every 30 days, 10 hygiene bags, which are highly prized, are distributed.
"You can't buy hygiene products with food stamps, and with shampoo at $4 a bottle, that stuff is pricey," Ms. Vandergrift said.
Amid a contented, low-level buzz one recent Thursday morning, Terrence Gooch, a male nurse and former prison inmate, studied for his GED exam at a long table in the building's main, central room.
At other tables, about 20 people, mostly in pairs, pored over books in tutorial sessions. Several people sat at PCs in a small side room, where a computer class was being held. Workers darted back and forth in the cafeteria kitchen at the rear of the building, and people streamed in and out of several administrative offices.
"Some of the patrons are homeless," Ms. Vandergrift said. "Some are mentally ill, chemically addicted, physically ill or elderly. But lots have jobs."
"It's just that working a minimum wage job in Trenton doesn't get you to the end of the month," she explained. "Our 'end of the month' used to be the last two weeks of the month, but now it starts on the 7th or 8th."
Mr. Gooch, who anticipated a good meal following his study session, said of TASK, "This could be a good start for a person."
He explained that the extra support is helping him get on his own feet. He plans to pass the GED, renew his nursing certification, and find a job at a hospital or clinic.
Donations Are Critical
While some TASK food is purchased, much is donated. For example, peanut butter comes from the USDA for free, Ms. Vandergrift said. And during the school year, the kitchen gets great desserts from Princeton University,
The soup kitchen also has a driver who traverses the region to pick up donated food from area grocery stores and bakeries. "We almost never have to buy bread or desserts," Ms. Vandergrift said.
TASK service is offered unconditionally, and everyone who comes is served. Therefore, the organization isn't eligible for much federal funding. In fact, the organization relies mostly on individual donations to meet its financial need of just over $1 million a year, Ms. Vandergrift said.
A pie chart of funding shows 41 percent of TASK's budget is met by individual donations; 24 percent is met by foundations and grants; 12 percent comes from religious groups; 10 percent comes from corporate entities; seven percent comes from employee campaigns; and six percent comes from miscellaneous sources.
The host of TASK volunteers includes individuals, faith-based groups, students, patron volunteers, and those filling community service requirements for monthly public assistance or as part of Mercer County or Trenton Court requirements.
But more volunteers are needed. Currently, TASK needs five volunteers to wrap trays for the off-site kitchen on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3:45 p.m. to 4:45 p.m. Volunteers must be 13 years or older.
TASK also needs nine to 13 volunteers through September to serve late afternoon meals. Volunteers would start between 3 p.m. and 3:45 p.m. and work through 5:45 p.m.
more information on volunteering opportunities or to learn more
about TASK, visit online at www.trentonsoupkitchen.org.