“Quieres pan?” I tilt the bucket of bread towards the seated diners, hastily giving a portion of baguette to each person. Bread distributed, I scurry back to the kitchen, where I am immediately handed a basket of plums for table four. I weave through the aisle, dodging other volunteers balancing trays of croissants or platters of chorizo or carts loaded with steaming lentil stew. Two plums for each person; the diners cup their hands to receive the round purple fruits. After the fruit, sandwiches. The tray is piled high with cheese and ham on baguette, pizza sprinkled with slices of jamon serrano, triangles of focaccia bursting with mozzarella and lettuce. Occasionally, a chicken tortilla wrap or a tuna empanada enters the mix. I shuffle through the aisle, tongs poised and ready to serve. “Quieres algo? Qué prefieres?”
I return to the kitchen with my empty tray. “Hola guapa! La leche para mesa cinco.” One of the seasoned volunteers passes me a metal kettle brimming with warm chocolate milk, the next course in this hurried meal. Trying not to spill, I briskly walk back to the dining hall and raise the kettle. “Quien quiere leche?” I scan the table for empty cups and expectant eyes, eager to lighten my liquid load. “Aqui, por favor.” The man seated at the table corner gestures to his empty water bottle, and I oblige, filling it with milk. As I gradually empty the kettle, the meal is beginning to conclude. Our last offering is the small pastries, and I roam through the dining hall with the bursting basket, liberally handing out tiny croissants, pains aux chocolat, muffins and donuts. For one diner, I serve a mini mountain of chocolate covered desserts; for another, I deposit a stream of mini croissants into her open plastic bag. It’s our version of take-out boxes.
As I clear my basket of petite baked goods, the dining hall begins to clear of people. That’s our cue to start cleaning. Empty plates and beverage glasses are collected and brought to the kitchen, where a team of volunteers is waiting to wash them. Leftover food is swept into buckets and deposited into the trash. Water pitchers and salt shakers return to the side hallway to be refilled. Tables are wiped down, spoons are collected and washed and folded with napkins. We work quickly; speed is essential in order to prepare for the second round of diners who will arrive in 30 minutes.
This three hour routine is the typical morning at Comedor Social Reina de la Paz, a church-run soup kitchen in the El Raval neighborhood of Barcelona. Serving well over one hundred people each day, it is a bustling and lively space during the hours of meal service. Although I was slightly overwhelmed the first day I volunteered, I soon learned the carefully planned system required to control the chaos of the crowded dining hall, metamorphosing it into a high-functioning, food-providing machine. While general operations are mandated by the three nuns in charge for a given day, older, more experienced volunteers play a huge role in guiding the new volunteers and ensuring service runs smoothly.
One humid Wednesday morning, as I was leaning on the side wall of the Reina de la Paz dining hall resting before meal service began, one of the other volunteers asked me why I dedicate time for this work–was it for my faith? I responded that no—I’m actually not religious. I simply think it is unfair that not everybody has food to eat, and I want to help in any way I can. Although I don’t think that this sort of work addresses the root of the problem, at least I know I have done something, that I have helped someone.
Food insecurity and hunger are major issues throughout the world and take various forms. I have volunteered in other soup kitchens as well, near Vassar in Poughkeepsie and near my hometown in the San Francisco Bay Area.Through these experiences, I am most familiar with urban food insecurity: the epidemic of hunger captured in those living near supermarkets and restaurants, but without homes or the money needed to obtain or prepare food for themselves. While I agree with the mission of soup kitchens to feed the hungry, I also see these institutions as imperfect. They do not function as a true remedy.
Each day at Reina de la Paz, we serve copious quantities of food. Each person is welcome to eat as much as they like at the dining hall and take more home in tupperware or plastic bags. Immediate hunger might be solved, but the nutritional content of the food we serve does not align well with a healthy or balanced diet. Diners usually get a bowl of warm food containing protein, some vegetable and grain, in addition to the fruit, bread and pastries that we hand out from baskets. Yet, we only have one basket of fruit for each table, while we serve mountains of pastries and sweets and send many diners home with bags full of croissants.
I don’t blame the imbalance of nutritious food on the organizers at Reina de la Paz. The pastries and bread are excess items donated from local bakeries, a good system to limit food waste and feed hungry mouths. However, I believe that all people deserve to have eat a balanced diet, and I suspect the small portion of vegetables we serve does not measure up to the suggested daily amount. Due to cost and the logistics of storing and preparing fresh produce, free food services often offer a higher proportion of carbohydrates or processed foods when compared to servings of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other nutritious food items. I commend Reina de la Paz, and other similar soup kitchens worldwide, for their ability to provide calories for those without adequate food, but I also believe we can build systems to offer calories that are more intentional and nutritious. Programs such as free produce giveaways or healthy cooking classes begin to bridge the gap between meeting hunger and nutrition needs. Simply put, it is necessary to increase efforts to make healthy food more affordable and accessible.
Furthermore, we have to look beyond a lack of food to understand what causes hunger. Although I do not know the stories of all the people who pass through the doors at Reina de la Paz, I suspect that many of them do not have homes, jobs, or other means of supporting themselves. What greater economic or social systems contribute to these circumstances? How can we try to change these systems? And as we work to improve these systems, how can we support people on their paths to self-sufficiency? One of the soup kitchens I worked with in California also provided services to help people find housing or jobs and to rehabilitate from past drug use. That is one example of a small step that can help provide people with increased agency over their lives.
I find working in soup kitchens to be both rewarding and humbling. I enjoy interacting with people and providing food to those who need it—after all, food is a basic requirement for human survival. Yet, I am constantly contemplating the larger questions posed by unequal access to resources. The parallels between food insecurity in my Bay Area and Poughkeepsie communities with Barcelona demonstrate how universal the issue of hunger is, reflecting the widespread inequalities that continue to divide the world into haves and have nots. Taking this global perspective also prompts me to think of the other forms of hunger in more rural areas or less developed countries. Although each food landscape is different depending on the social and physical environment, food is a powerful issue to me because it connects people around the globe; everyone needs to eat, and everyone shares the planet from which our food comes from. Although I am only one person in one community organization, engaging in work to alleviate hunger feels meaningful because I know that we are all part of a larger, worldwide food system.
On a more personal note, soup kitchens make me incredibly grateful for the privilege I have to choose, cook and eat a large variety of food; in my life, food is not merely energy to sustain me but a nourishing source of joy. Food is a central interest of mine as an eater, a cook and a student who hopes to pursue a career in food systems. As I experience different food situations, I add to my views and contemplate solutions.
Reina de la Paz is just one place on this plentiful planet that has inspired me to create a world in which everyone has access and agency to eat a nutritious, delicious plate each and every night. Until then, passing out trays trays of croissants or platters of chorizo or carts loaded with steaming lentil stew is a good start.
Photo courtesy of Diócesis de Lleida