Developing strategies to end hunger
 

"Restaurants" or "Soup Kitchens"?

Dining Room in Eugene OR photo
Eugene, Oregon, takes a different approach to providing food to hungry people. Photo: Nicole Lee.

Hunger Report Senior Editor Todd Post is currently researching the 2014 Hunger Report, whose focus is “A Plan to End Hunger in America.” Here’s a story from his visit earlier this month to Eugene, OR:

In another city, this diner might be called a soup kitchen, a place where people who are homeless or living on very low income can go for a free or low-cost meal. But unlike most soup kitchens, the Family Dining Room in Eugene treats the people who come as though they are customers in a more conventional diner.

Diners are seated at tables by a hostess. There are flowers in vases on the tables and menus. A server comes by to take people’s orders. The meals are prepared in the kitchen by volunteer cooks. In fact, everyone who works at the diner is a volunteer. The effort is coordinated by Food for Lane County, the regional food bank located in Eugene.

The diner is open three or four nights each week and serves approximately 300 customers per night. When it first opened, it was serving as many as 475 people. The volunteers were exhausted, so they had to cut back on the number of meals served.

“The diner is the busiest restaurant in town,” Dawn Woodward tells me, which tells you a lot about Eugene, OR. Dawn works at Food for Lane County. More than 1 in 3 county residents is eligible for federal nutrition assistance. According to the 2012 Lane County Hunger Factors Assessment, at least 70 percent of all households worry at some point during the month about how they will get their next meal.

Another thing the diner tells us is how Eugene sees itself as a community. The diner’s slogan is “Brewing dignity with respect.” That’s the message Eugene wants to give to people who are poor, pushed to the margins of the community, and/or isolated by their shame over being poor.

We all know that being hungry or poor is heavily stigmatized in the United States – whether we have lived in poverty ourselves, seen others living this way, or simply heard the way people talk. Everyone wants to feed children since they are seen (correctly) as innocent. But our society seems to believe that on a person’s 18th birthday, hunger and poverty become his or her own fault. Their country and community no longer feel any responsibility -- to them or to any other hungry adult.

As you get closer to the households where hunger lurks, the role of communities becomes much more pronounced. I’ve been studying community responses to hunger, trying to understand why hunger is more contained in some communities than in others whose economic situation is similar or even better. I’ve come to realize that what communities do to reduce the stigma associated with asking for help is a big, big part of it.

So it is not just about offering help. It’s about changing the way help is offered. Communities may always have people living on the margins, but do they feel welcome in the center of town? People in Eugene and many other Oregon communities are taking seriously the idea of community food security – welcoming those who struggle to put food on the table back into the heart of the community. Of course, communities must have hearts for this to happen.

Food for Lane County also operates a summer feeding program. Dawn Woodward shared a story about a little girl at one of the schools that offers summer feeding. When Dawn mentioned the Family Dining Room in a passing comment during a visit to the school, the little girl’s eyes lit up and she said proudly that she loved going to the Family Dining Room; it was her favorite place to eat. It’s likely that her parents, and others in similar situations, can rarely if ever afford to take their child to any other restaurant. Giving parents the opportunity to provide that meal to their daughter is so much more meaningful than if the family had simply been given an equivalent amount of food. Todd Post

 

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