When you think of a “soup kitchen” what comes to mind? A bunch of sad looking people carrying trays while making their way down a line while workers in net caps spoon ladles of food onto plastic plates? That’s exactly what Josie McCarthy disliked about them. Well, that and the name “soup kitchen.” “It’s their (the customers’) food too,” she says. “And they haven’t served soup since the 1940’s.”
On the last Drop Me Anywhere trip I had the honor of volunteering at The Dining Room, a restaurant serving those in a current state of poverty. Part of FOOD for Lane County’s Family Dinner Program, The Dining Room is a unique venue which serves the homeless population, or simply those having severe financial difficulty, in a respectful, restaurant-like atmosphere.
Josie McCarthy is the Program Manager of the Family Dinner Program and the catalyst for The Dining Room. FOOD for Lane County ran your typical soup kitchen out of a school in Eugene, Oregon until 2004 when they moved to their current location. While they had a new location, they were still struggling to serve the population they had hoped. In 2005, Josie was brought in to try to make it work. She fought for five years to turn the program from a soup kitchen to a restaurant model. The Dining Room began serving food in a restaurant atmosphere in 2010.
When guests arrive, they are given a reservation. When seats become available, they are invited in, five at a time, wherever they like and are immediately offered water, milk, juice or coffee. They are then offered a full meal with a main course and healthy side dishes. During their meal, a volunteer comes through with a dessert tray offering a variety of cakes and pies.
The Dining Room serves a variety of guests from families with young children to elderly people, including a 90 year-old woman with mental illness who lives on the streets and has been a customer for 9 years. The staff and volunteers really get to know their guests; Josie mentions that this woman has beautiful handwriting, but the woman has also expressed her embarrassment for where her life has ended up.
There are also quite a few success stories; guests love to come in and share their successes with the staff and volunteers, who love to hear them. Josie tells me of one woman, a widow in her late-fifties, who had lost her housing and was living in her car in the wintertime. She had a full-time job at a fast food restaurant but, as housing can be quite expensive in Eugene, she found herself homeless. She was working to save enough money for first and last month’s rent. She came to eat at The Dining Room and, when she returned to her car, she realized she had locked herself out. She returned to The Dining Room in distress as she couldn’t get into her “home.” The staff chipped in to hire a locksmith to gain access to her car. A few months later she came in and said, “Do you remember me?” Of course they did. She went on to tell them that she had found an apartment and wanted to let them how grateful she was for their help.
The food The Dining Room serves is provided through FOOD for Lane County. To improve the atmosphere, expired flowers are provided by Market of Choice and Trader Joe’s, and artwork painted by customers decorates the walls. As many of the homeless have dogs, The Dining Room provides crates outside and food for their guests’ canine companions.
The Dining Room has 367 volunteers of which 25 per-day work to serve meals to those having financial challenges. Between them, they work 800 volunteer hours per month. The Dining Room is open Monday through Thursday from 1:00pm-4:00pm. During these hours they serve up to 300 people per day.
When asked what people can do if they want to help, Josie says that people should advocate for a restaurant model food site. No more soup kitchens. Her goal, she says, is “educating people that these people are their neighbors.” The only extra resources the restaurant model uses over the traditional soup kitchens is a few more volunteers. Oh, they could also use some silverware, paper towels, salt and pepper and hot sauce.
The first word that came to my mind during my day volunteering there was “dignity.” Often people feel that treating people less fortunate with less respect will encourage them to change their situation. Most of these people would like nothing more than to change their situation, but mental or physical health challenges, abusive home lives, loss of a job or simply bad decisions have landed them in an unfortunate situation. Besides the food, the respect provided by The Dining Room helps their guests in their fight to change their circumstances. As one customer put it, “The main ingredient in their food is kindness.”
To find out more about The Dining Room, go to their website at FOOD for Lane County Family Dinner Program. You can also find out more about FOOD For Lane County through this website.