I have been staying home too much for the holidays. So I looked for something to do. Since I don’t plan to take a trip to see any place, volunteering in a soup kitchen sounds interesting. I have done many different volunteering works before. But volunteering in a soup kitchen would be new. So, I googled “soup kitchen” + volunteer and found Feeding Tampa Bay runs a couple of Trinity Cafes. One of them is about 20 min driving, and it is close to USF. They have a friendly online system that makes finding a shift and signing up very easy.
Feeding Tampa Bay is part of the national Feeding America network. It provides food to anyone who cannot afford food and live in the 10-county area of West Central Florida. It has many programs, including soup kitchen, mobile food distributions, and assistant and workforce development programs. There are about 40 shifts per week, and each shift runs two to four hours. Volunteers can find the one they are interested in and free at a calendar page https://volunteer.feedingtampabay.org/calendar . Then sign up. It tells you what the shift is about, how many volunteers it needs, and home many spots left unfilled.
I picked the Trinity Cafe 2 at 2202 E. Busch Blvd., Tampa, FL 33612, from 11 am to 1 pm and signed up one spot on December 30. It needs 28 people, 21 have signed on.
Trinity Café 2 provides lunch during workdays and only breakfast during weekends. It is a full-service café like a restaurant. Guests come and are seated at a table. They share a round table that can seat eight people. The table is nicely decorated with centerpieces. Servers will provide them silverware and paper napkins. Then the guest will get either a cup of iced tea or iced water. A three-course, freshly prepared meal will be served.
When I arrived at exact 11 am, I saw several people waiting on the sidewalks of the Trinity Café 2’s parking lot. After parking, I walked to the front door and saw a group of 30 to 40 people formed two lines sitting in front of the door. One person on the left side stood up and opened the left door for me. I thanked him and walked in. I guess he saw me driving and wearing a USF T-shirt and assume me as a volunteer. I walked into the building and started to worry about how to find the right room.
There is a long hallway from my left to right, and a short hallway in front of me. I saw several doors along the short hallway. So, I picked the opened double door and entered. After I walked in, I saw long tables, people who are standing and chatting, then several round tables, and several more long tables. I knew I was in the right room. I walked to a couple of people who were chatting and talked to them. They confirmed it was the place and told me who I should talk to. One very nice retired-looking Hispanic man, Miguel, pointed me to big White men, Joe, who sat behind a long table.
I walked to him and waited until he ended his conversation with another guy. I introduced myself to him and asked him how to get started. He pleasantly greeted me and pointed me to a desk again the walk and told me to sign up and get a name sticker and an apron. I signed in below about 15 names and put on an apron over my USF T-shirt and tied it up. I wrote my full name on a sticker and stuck the name tag on the apron. Then I came back and asked the big man what my role would be. He put me on as the server for table 5.
Several minutes later, the big man’s wife, Susan, co-led the Café with her husband, called everyone who was the first time there. A group of 6 people, including me, gathered and formed a circle with her. Two of them had been there before, but it had been a year. Susan gave us a quick rundown of what would happen after 11:30 am when the door is open.
There are 9 tables, two volunteers are assigned to each table. One is the host, and the other is the server. The host sits at the table, greets the guests, and has conversations with them. The server serves the meals, including a glass of iced water or tea, a bowl of salad, a plate of a hot meal, an apple, and a candy bar for today. Once a guest finishes, the host call for a busser to clean the table and take away the plates. The server doesn’t touch the used plates to prevent cross-contamination. After the spot is cleaned, the server will lay down a new set of silverware and napkins, and signal the host at the door with fingers about how many seats become available. Then the host at the door will let more people in and send the right number of guests to the table.
Susan emphasized on several things. Some of the guests will ask for sugar. But, each guest can only get a maximum of four sugar packets. Each sugar packet cost several cents. But they add up. The café try to control the meal cost to be under $2.50 per guest. I would guess it doesn’t include the cost of the bread or candy bar since they are mostly donated. The guest can refill iced water, but not iced tea. When pouring water from a pitcher for refilling, we need to make sure the pitcher doesn’t touch the glass. When taking hot meals, choose the ones from the top shelf first since the top shelf doesn’t have a warmer. Each table has a basket of bread. Before we refill the basket, we should look for left bread in the baskets on other tables to avoid waste. The bussers will need to wear gloves. Everyone should have a pleasure altitude as it is especially difficult for the guests in a holiday session. At least they can have a pleasant time there.
Right before the opening, Joe gathered all the volunteers together and formed a circle and reiterated a few points Susan told us. After that, he asked a girl by his side to say a prayer and had everyone hold hands. I followed along even I am not religious. Then the job started.
I went to table 5 and chatted with the host, a black woman named Jayla. She didn’t want to be a host because sitting down did not do well to her legs. So we switched. I found the spot with a reserved sign that indicated my seat. Since silverware and napkins have already been placed on the table, Jayla went to get several glasses of iced tea. I followed and got several glasses of iced water as well. We put the glasses in front of the silverware. Then Jayla also put down an apple and a candy bar on each spot.
People started to pour in, and some of them took seats at table 5. Jayla immediately gave each of them a bowl of salad and quickly gave them a plate of the main meal – chicken, rice, and broccoli. I smiled at the guests and greeted them with a “good morning.” Then asked them, “how are you doing.” They smiled and greeted back and started to eat right away. The one on my right side asked me for four packets of sugar. Once getting them, he put them all into the tea. A big guy with a bag across the table looked at me and gave a thumb-up. I smiled and nodded at him. Some of them grabbed a bag of bread from the tables at the door when they came in. They saved the bread, candy bar, and the apple in their bags. Some of them came without a bag. So they left the apple or candy bar for others to take.
After about 10-15 mins, some guests started to finish up and leave. I called a busser and got the spots cleaned, and Jayla put down new sets of silverware and napkins. I then signal the host at the door. Then more people finished and new guests came. It became very busy. I stood up and took over the job of getting drinks and putting down silverware and napkins. After a guest left, I called to a busser. Once it was cleaned, I put on a new set of silverware and signaled the host at the door. Sometimes, there were three or four spots rotated at once. After the new guest sat, I greeted them and asked what they wanted to drink, iced tea or iced water. Then I went and got the drinks for them. I also took care of the refills requests and some of the requests of sugar.
The guests were all very polite. They knew the rules. So everything went fairly smoothly. Several guests looked happy and comfortable, while many looked numb and depressed. They barely talked to each other. Nobody talked loudly. Two couples came with their kids. Susan came over and gave each of the couples a bag of bread and a bag of mixed goods, including cane food or other things. Some couples came in together and sat together. But if one finished faster than the other, he or she didn’t sit and wait. Instead, he or she left right after finishing so other guests could come and take the spot. I only saw one guest looked at his smartphone during eating.
One old lady asked us to clean the area under the table since she saw some food debris on the floor, and she doesn’t want to put her bags there. I asked Joe. He told me we would only clean the floor after lunch. But she can change her seat. I found her another seat and led her over and brought her drink. Then she asked me to bring her food from the old table to her new table. I was confused since we have not served her food yet, and there was no food at her old spot. She insisted that for several times. The server, a 16-year-old black boy, at her new table, was confused as well. But then, we brought her the food from the kitchen. She became quiet.
At the busiest time, everything ran out for a brief moment. A mid-age Hispanic lady had prepared a full tray of wrapped silverware and napkins before the start and had been wrapping them fast and continually. Now the tray became empty. One old White man kept pouring ice, water, and tea also quickly and continually. I took the last two glasses of water from the water station. All bowls of salad on a long table were gone. A Hispanic old lady run around to get more salad and fill them into bowls. In front of the kitchen, the shelves were empty. More meals were still in preparation. The apples and the candy bars lying on another long table were also almost gone.
After a hectic half-hour, things slowed down. No new guess came. I asked Joe how many guests came in today. He told me at that moment, it was 190. The café usually serves over 160 people every lunch and sometimes goes above 200. The max he saw was 210. Afterward, there were another 5-6 came. At 12:30 pm, we stopped serving. Still, three or four people came in, and we have to turn them away. Some of the volunteers had a meal there as well. Jayla took out a small Tupperware and got some food. We said goodbye and happy new year to each other and then she left. After helping clean out ice in coolers, I walked to Susan and asked her if there was anything I could do. She said that was it and hoped to see me again. I took off my apron and hung it back while thinking of getting my students to come with me next time.
On my way back, I thought, for a soup kitchen, a cooking robot or a robot servant would not be helpful anytime soon.
(All names used are different from their real ones for their privacy.)