Soup for the Soul

How Evanston’s soup kitchens satiate hunger, build much-needed community.

Guests enter the soup kitchen to the compelling sounds of a piano, each and every note guided by passion and purpose. It is 6pm, which indicates the commencement of Beth Emet’s Wednesday soup kitchen. Clusters of individuals enter the doors, directing themselves to the array of tables, where chairs sit anxiously awaiting their occupants. Stained glass windows highlight a singular wall, through which the remainder of light passes before dusk arrives.

Inside the dimly lit kitchen, volunteers of all ages thoughtfully prepare Beth Emet’s Wednesday night staple: tacos. In addition to the tacos and their usual accompaniments, fresh pastries, locally sourced bread, and a variety of drinks are made available to the guests.

A steady buzz of conversations creates a warm ambience. People from all walks of life discuss their days, the good and the bad. Recurring visitors embrace while strangers greet one another and connect through stories.

Whether you visit one yourself, have signed up to volunteer, or encounter one’s presence simply due to the passings of daily life, soup kitchens have a way of connecting a community. They help to alleviate some of the burden that an individual may be facing, whether that is through food consumption or conversation. Soup kitchens are a necessary fixture, and Evanston has breathed this into existence, with more than ten kitchens that serve its inhabitants every day of the week to ensure that no person goes hungry on a given day.

“I think people don’t understand just how important it is to the people that we’re serving. Being able to come and get a meal helps them get by. When it’s just three or four days before payday and someone doesn’t know what they’re going to do, they know that they can go to Beth Emet, they can go to Hemenway, they can go to St. Mark’s or St. Pauls. They know that they’ll have something warm to eat,” says Bob Carroll, an organizer at Hemenway.

Indigence and homelessness are ingrained in our community. By adapting and continuing to provide their services, Evanston’s soup kitchens are mending this complex set of wounds one hearty meal at a time.

“I see how it helps people from all walks of life. Many people think about a soup kitchen and envision people who are experiencing homelessness standing in line and getting food. But it could be your next-door neighbor,” says Susan Berube, executive director of the Interfaith Action of Evanston that organizes four of Evanston’s local kitchens.

Berube found herself sitting around a bonfire in her yard one night when she overheard her neighbor, whose husband had recently become ill, talking about the food that a local soup kitchen had provided her family in a time of need.

“[My neighbor] said, ‘I got enough carrots and potatoes to last our family for a month.’ That’s when it really hits close to home, because [that family lives] in my neighborhood. They own a home. They’re just going through a hard time right now.”

According to a Feeding America study conducted in March 2021, nearly 12% of Cook County residents were projected to live in food insecure households in 2021, versus 9.3% in 2019, prior to the pandemic.

“It is indicative of the Evanston area that through faith communities and other agencies, we’ve recognized the need and have been able to step in and fulfill that need,” voices Donna Richardson, one of the co-coordinators of the Wednesday Lunch Ministry jointly sponsored by St. Matthews and St. Mark’s Episcopal churches.

Richardson’s first role with the soup kitchen was as a Tuesday evening preparer, where she would extend her gratitude for serving those in need by making peanut butter sandwiches. Under the leadership of St. Mark’s late parishioner John Lucadamo and Janet Eder from St. Matthew’s, with assistance from a loyal force of volunteers, the ministry continues to function. Donna Richardson and Kati Olsen, now co-leaders of the kitchen, are committed to feeding Evanston’s inhabitants.

“Nobody should go hungry. For me, the opportunity to provide a good meal was just compelling. It really spoke to me as something that I was called to do. It’s a highlight of my week every week; it really is. People sitting at tables, eating, talking, enjoying each other’s company over good food; the atmosphere just feels good,” Olsen says. “We enjoy the fact that [the guests] are enjoying themselves and enjoying each other’s company. It’s like hosting a dinner.”

For those that have dedicated their lives to providing hunger relief, the desire to serve the local community was inspired by a multitude of circumstances.

“My daughter was the one who suggested it six years ago when we were talking about things that we could do to make the world a better place. She said that she thought it would be nice if we could do something at a soup kitchen. We got involved through St. Mary’s and have been consistent volunteers ever since,” says Katherine Heid, an organizer at St. Mary’s Catholic Church.

For Kris Economos, one of the co-managers at First Presbyterian, the focus is on the taste of the food that’s served.

“As far as the quality of our meals, we serve really good food,’” says Economos. “We love to take suggestions from our guests. Two weeks ago, someone said to me, ‘Kris, we haven’t had peach cobbler in a long time.’ And I said, ‘You’re right, we haven’t, so we’re going to make it in two weeks.’ I can’t wait to surprise him with the cobbler.”

A soup kitchen isn’t simply transactional; it’s relational. Leslie Levin-Shulruff, Chair at Beth Emet Synagogue’s Wednesday’s soup kitchen, wants to build a community among guests and volunteers.

“[A successful soup kitchen] looks like a well-oiled machine. It looks like volunteers out talking to guests, the guests being happy, and music filling the room. The vibe feels really warm and friendly and everyone’s spirits are high,” says Levin-Shulruff.

From reshaping to disrupting to dramatically altering American life, the pandemic exacerbated food insecurity. As a result, soup kitchens across Evanston had to modify their services to ensure the health and safety of those seeking food assistance. The pandemic fueled a sense of urgency, and Evanston’s soup kitchens recognized the need and tackled it head on.

“We are very proud to say that we have never missed a Saturday serving a meal here, even in the depths of COVID when no one knew what they were doing. We kept preparing and serving, and we have not missed a beat. Some of [our volunteers] had to step back for various reasons, but others have stepped up and we feel very fortunate,” says Barb Spencer, a co-manager at First Presbyterian.

Virtually overnight, the typical models of the soup kitchens changed; the guests that once occupied the carefully curated spaces were forced to adapt to a grab-and-go meal. While soup kitchen coordinators were intentional in fulfilling their responsibility and serving all aspects of a hearty meal, their mission was greatly altered. As doors closed, the sense of community that was once the foundation of the soup kitchens became lost.

“I think the biggest thing is the loss of community for the people that come and eat. These soup kitchens are a place where they can sit down and talk together and see each other. At the start of the pandemic, a lot of them would say ‘Have you seen Steve?’ ‘Have you seen Helen?’ ‘If you see them, tell them I say hi.’ If I don’t see somebody for a couple of weeks, I have to ask ‘Have you seen so and so? I haven’t seen them in a couple of weeks. Are they okay?’” Caroll says. “They sit at tables together. They all know each other. They miss that and it’s been a huge loss for them.”

Still, Caroll believes it is possible to foster a nurturing community. Rather than simply handing the to-go bag and sending a guest on their way, Caroll has explored the value of small gestures.

“I try to form a connection with everybody and make sure they’re all okay, because to me, that’s the most important part. I try to call everyone by their name or get their name. I just do goofy stuff, like ‘I need to see a smile before I’m giving you this meal,’ instead of just saying ‘here’s your bag,’ because to me, anybody can do that,” Caroll shares.

Widespread financial instability left many Evanstonians strained, unable to provide themselves and their families with basic needs. Additionally, many individuals who became confined to their homes in an effort to avoid exposure to COVID-19 no longer visited the kitchens.

“Pre-pandemic, depending on the time of the month and the time of year, we would have anywhere from 65 people on a low day to more than 100 people on a religious day. Now, since the pandemic, we serve 65 meals. A few of those are usually seconds, but we serve 65 meals every week, and we rarely really run out. We’re serving far fewer people,” explains Paula Ketchman, coordinator of the Interfaith Sunday Soup Kitchen at St. Paul’s Church.

As lifestyles changed, longstanding habits were suspended.

“We have lost serving groups. I’m currently trying to fill out my 2023 schedule, and I have a lot of empty Sundays where I don’t know where the meals are going to come from,” Ketcham shares. “We have had fewer regular volunteers; there are people who just haven’t come back. But we do have a really dedicated core group of folks, and we couldn’t do it without them. They’re just people in the community who have been doing this, and it is something they’re really committed to. One of the only reasons we have been able to provide a meal every single Sunday throughout the pandemic is because of the volunteers and the groups and organizations that have supported us.”

During the height of the pandemic, the American population navigated sources of strain driven by isolation and uncertainty. The modifications that were once considered a priority for many soup kitchens were no longer attainable under the weight of the radical transformations.

“We were composting at my soup kitchen [prior to the pandemic]. We had been doing it for several months, and we were finally getting into a rhythm of training our guests and then all of a [sudden], we didn’t have water and pitchers. Instead, we have to give them individual bottles,” says Mary Beth Roth, co-manager of the Friday Sack Lunch Soup Kitchen and coordinator of the Produce Mobile, which distributes free fruit and vegetables to Evanston’s inhabitants twice a month. As many kitchens were taking steps to become more eco-friendly, the pandemic forced them to utilize more plastic than they ever had before.

Even in the depths of isolation, many were able to identify silver linings. For Evanston’s soup kitchens, open communication became a necessary fixture; it facilitated consistency and ensured that meals weren’t duplicated.

“[The soup kitchens] used to communicate with one another on a regular basis, but within two weeks of COVID, we began to communicate every week. This was very helpful in making decisions, especially for when and how we were going to open back up,” Roth adds.

After a strenuous two-year battle, several soup kitchens have reopened their doors, allowing guests to be seated indoors, with few restrictions in place.

“We’re back to tablecloths and flowers on the table. Most of the guests are really happy to be inside and be able to come in from the cold,” Levin-Shulruff says. “The guests commented last week that this is the happiest place to be.”

In a constantly evolving world, reopening is both tempting and intimidating. As some community members rushed to return to pre-pandemic tendencies, the threat of contracting the virus wasn’t so effortlessly abandoned for others.

“There’s still a bit of a reluctance to go back inside for some of the volunteers. We’ve been going back and forth about whether we should resume service inside, and we just aren’t there yet,” Spencer shares.

Nonetheless, those who have expressed hesitation towards reopening their doors have transcended their energy into preparing to-go meals that satisfy the needs of their guests.

“We’re currently serving about 50 people on Saturdays at First Presbyterian, but we also package about 60 meals for guests that are housed at the Margarita Inn,” Spencer adds. The Margarita Inn, a hotel-based shelter located on Oak Avenue in Evanston, is a new, innovative program operated by Connections for the Homeless, an organization that provides supportive services for individuals and families that are struggling with homelessness. “We’re making about 110 meals right now for every Saturday [for those folks].”

As a result of the inevitable burden caused by the pandemic, hunger relief coordinators collaborated with one another and strengthened their usual services, providing additional resources for those that attend the soup kitchen.

“We also have somebody from Connections for the Homeless that comes in that can direct people to any kind of services that they might need outside of the meal,” says David Karnes, the supervisor for the First United Methodist Church soup kitchen.

Olsen solidifies its significance. “It’s more than just food. It’s more than just the meal. That’s just a part of it,” she says.

By seeking advice from one another, those that assist in coordinating the soup kitchens have developed creative solutions to problems and gestures that make the experience worthwhile.

“Sue Berube said something once, and I always remember it,” Economos shares. “She said, ‘many of our guests, all they ever hear is no.’ So we try to remember that if someone asks for something, and we can’t provide it, we’ll say, ‘We’re not able to meet your request right now, but we will in the future’ or ‘let me just double check on this.’ We try to say yes if we can. If someone wants a second cup of coffee, we say ‘Yeah, that’d be fine!’ It is important for people to [hear] ‘yes’ every once in a while.”

Individuals that attend Evanston’s soup kitchens are not required to show any form of income or provide details about their situation. This speaks to the community’s recognition of the humanity of guests. And for those that help facilitate the soup kitchens, the patrons’ appreciation does not go unnoticed.

“The [guests] are always thankful, and they’re always giving gratitude as they walk out. Someone once said ‘thank you so much’ and I said ‘oh, you’re so welcome’. And he said, ‘I don’t mean for the food, I mean for how we’re treated,’” Roth shares. “At the soup kitchen, we try to give people choices. We try to treat them like you treat any other guest in your own home. It’s really important that people feel they are respected when they walk in the door and that they don’t have to prove that they need the food. We just give it to them.”

Coming out of the pandemic, soup kitchens are responsible for leaving our community slightly less hungry and far more united.

“It is a joy,” Spencer shares. “We’re just trying to contribute a little bit of warmth, and if I can put a smile on someone’s face, it’s worth it.”