Trenton Area Soup Kitchen – Providing the Ingredients for Building Better Lives

By Wendy Greenberg

Escher Street in Trenton, 10am on a weekday: The line forms to the right of the double doors at the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK). Some of Trenton’s neediest individuals arrive by foot or by bicycle. A few push strollers, a few carry a bag of belongings. On rainy days, they huddle under a small awning.

The doors open at 10:30am. Once inside, the patrons sit down to a served meal. One day it might be brunch with waffles and eggs; on another, tuna fish and macaroni. More meals are served at the end of the month when personal resources are running low.

But TASK is about more than food, although that is its most-used service, with some 6,000 meals served each week — 357,000 during last year. TASK blends the essential nutrient of food with the additional ingredients needed for personal self-sufficiency.

“We are more than a soup kitchen,” emphasizes Joyce Campbell, director since June 2016. “It is great to feed bodies, but our patrons need more.”

Offering more is Campbell’s goal, and that goal will be buoyed by a $1.3 million expansion. A capital campaign is underway to fund the project, with construction scheduled to start toward the end of November. A not so small detail: the outside awning will expand to four feet.

Expanded Services

As TASK patrons’ needs are addressed, its services have expanded. This year, for the first time, a limited number of beds for first apartments are budgeted. One homeless patron, recounts case manager Julie Janis, had been living on the streets for years, recently near Cadwalader Park. Janis helped the individual with general financial assistance, and she procured identification, a bank account, and eventually a job and housing. “Apartments come completely empty,” she notes. “Not a lamp, not a fork.” She was able to purchase a bed. The patron then came to see her and said through tears, “I haven’t slept in a bed in 30 years.”

Another patron, who at one point had been suspended from TASK for being disruptive, returned from rehab and got a job next door at Capital City Farm. To work there, he needed sturdy work boots, which TASK was able to purchase. He became so interested in agriculture that he enrolled in courses at Mercer County Community College.

Feeding people is just the first step, Campbell says. “We feed the mind, body, and spirit.”

Aiding the Needy 

TASK was founded in 1982, during a recession, when a coalition of individuals from Trenton churches and social service agencies sought to aid the needy. The first soup kitchen was at the First Methodist Church on Perry Street. By 1992, with the help of donors and Mercer County, TASK raised $600,000 to build the Escher Street headquarters.

Today TASK’s annual budget is a little more than $3 million, with only 2.3 percent coming from government. Individual donors provide 62 percent of the budget, with the rest from  corporations, foundations, and religious organizations. Its capital campaign for the $1.3 million expansion is now at $1.1 million.

TASK recently received a four-star rating and a perfect 100 score from Charity Navigator, an independent nonprofit evaluator. It is the only nonprofit in New Jersey to receive a perfect score and one out of 53 across the country, Campbell points out.

Volunteers help, saving TASK $565,000 annually. On most days a cadre of about 50 volunteers prepares donated food like rolls and cakes and purchased lunch items. They weave in and out to avoid bumping one another in the small space, and serve the meals as well. The food is cooked by four paid staff.

Food is served during various hours at 14 satellite locations, including South Trenton, Yorkville, and Hightstown, and in Princeton at Cornerstone Community Kitchen at Princeton United Methodist Church, St. James AME Church, and a take-out operation at First Baptist Church.

The Escher Street site serves a mid-day meal weekdays from 10:30am to 12:50pm. Late trays are available at the side door from 1 to 2pm. An evening meal is served Monday through Thursday, 3:30 to 4:50pm. Through the Send Hunger Packing program, children receive breakfast bags in addition to a hot meal. Late trays are available at the side door from 5 to 5:30pm.

Beyond the meals, TASK provides haircuts, sleeping bags for the homeless in cold weather (as a short-term aid), move-in kits for new housing (think dish drainer), and arranges transportation for medical visits.  “People don’t think about these things,” Campbell said.

 

A Community Center 

But there is more. There is adult education, tutoring, a faxing service, eyeglasses, socks, and some medications, as well as school backpacks, coats, and a mail center for the homeless. A new program ensures that diabetic individuals get special meals with more protein. There is an art program with the Trenton A-team, and Monday Music with an open mic. The TASK band, the Funktasticks, entertains at the Grounds For Sculpture, libraries, and parks.

There is also an empowering creative writing group. Eight of its writers and some adult education students went to Washington D.C. this past July to NJ Hill Day, a Congressional reception on housing and homelessness. “For me, it was a very profound moment,” Campbell said. “The ones impacted need to be heard.”

Although food is what brings people in, Campbell’s goal for TASK is to continue to offer a full range of services, a one-stop shop for improving lives. “There is more of a chance to build a better life from a community center, a hub,” she said. “People don’t like to go from place to place to get what they need, and to keep repeating their information.”

Prior to TASK, Campbell was associate executive director for external affairs at Catholic Charities, where she worked for 20 years in various capacities. She’s also vice president of the board of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey and a member of the board of directors of the Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness.

With a bachelor’s degree from Clark University in Worcester, Mass., and a master’s degree from Rutgers in social work, Campbell came to TASK to be closer to the programs. “Anti-poverty efforts are my passion,” she said. Even as a child, she said was interested in the discrepancy in financial resources in her community.

Campbell is overseeing the expansion, which launched with a ceremonial groundbreaking August 11, carrying good wishes from legislators, dignitaries, and trustees. The physical expansion will increase patron dining capacity and adds a walk-in refrigerator to increase perishable food storage.

Equally important, the space for the non-meal activities will add a multipurpose room for adult education and special needs instruction, a computer station, testing area and storage, all allowing for more programs. Jaime Parker, manager of programs and services, explains, “The conference rooms are booked all the time. Community groups need them too. All are competing for the small space. You don’t want to make the choice of whether to check blood pressure or hold adult education — both are important. Coat collection or music? Both are important. We won’t have to decide with the expansion.”

One Less Barrier 

Finding services under one roof is important. People take a while to feel comfortable before they ask for other services, the staff explains. “It improves the quality of life and gives hope,” Parker said. “It’s hard to drag yourself to another site, the more we can offer here, it is one less barrier. It is one more step in having a better life.”

Janis does a lot of retrieving identification for patrons. IDs get wet, lost, or stolen on the streets. “You can’t get a job or housing without identification,” she says.

She welcomes the expansion, especially as the staff member who schedules community outreach. “We have people come in for food stamps, Sometimes it starts with a triage situation, but as we talk, I can kind of identify why they need it. Homelessness takes a while to overcome.”

While the contributions of TASK’s 3,500 volunteers each year are invaluable, Campbell also encourages cash donations so they can be flexible about needs, such as the beds.

This Thanksgiving patrons, staff, and volunteers will give thanks for the traditional served meal — turkey, dressing, corn, and sweet potatoes — and also for the new possibilities the building expansion will bring in 2018, giving more hope to the people of Trenton.

The August 11, 2017 groundbreaking for the expansion involved local dignitaries and TASK board and staff members. Included were TASK Executive Director Joyce Campbell, West Windsor Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh, TASK Board of Trustees Chair Sajid Sayed, and State Sen. Shirley Turner (D-15), among others.

Sign-up for Thanksgiving meal volunteering begins November 1; and sign-up begins December 1 for Christmas. Assistance is needed to make food baskets for regular patrons who do have a place to cook.

TASK encourages volunteers to share their passion, and welcomes ideas on how to use its space to reach people in need.

To volunteer: email Volunteer Coordinator Charlie Orth, charlieo@trentonsoupkitchen.org, with your preferences and a telephone number where you can be reached during normal business hours.

Other places to volunteer during the holiday season and beyond:

Arm In Arm (formerly the Crisis Ministry of Mercer County)
Core program areas are homelessness prevention, hunger prevention, and workforce development.
609.396.9355

Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Mercer County
Monitored matches between adult volunteers and children ages 6 through 18.
609.656.1000

Boys and Girls Club of Trenton/Mercer Country
Provides young people in Mercer County, ages 5 to 18, with social, enrichment, and recreational activities.
609.392.3191

Cornerstone Community Kitchen of Princeton
Offers free and nutritious meals.
609.924.2613

EASEL Animal Rescue League
of Mercer County
All-volunteer community group with goal of ending killing of unwanted animals.
609.883.0540

Mercer Street Friends
Helps children, adults, and seniors facing the impacts of poverty.
609.396.1506

SAVE — A Friend to Homeless Animals
Protecting the health and welfare of homeless companion animals.
609.309.5214

Senior Care Ministry of Princeton
Assists the elderly in their homes.
609.921.8888