The Soup Kitchen That the Coronavirus Couldn’t Stop

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People still have to eat. The soup kitchen at the Church of the Holy Apostles, the largest in the city, still feeds lunch to many of the hungriest among us, as it has done every weekday, including holidays, for thirty-eight years. A major fire in the church in 1990 didn’t stop it, nor did September 11th or Superstorm Sandy. It has never missed a day. Lately, the serving station has been moved outdoors, to the church’s front gate, on Ninth Avenue, near West Twenty-eighth Street. The menu still offers a hot meal but packaged in a to-go sack with recyclable dishes, which are the biggest expense at the moment.

In non-pandemic times, the servers and other helpers include fifty or sixty volunteers. Many of these are retirees, and to keep them safe the soup kitchen has told most not to come in. Now all the preparation, serving, cleanup, and security is done by a core group of about fourteen soup-kitchen staff and select volunteers, who wear gloves, wash their hands a lot, and practice “physical distancing.” The Reverend Dr. Anna Pearson, the church’s rector and head of the soup kitchen, told a visitor, “We don’t call it ‘social distancing,’ because what we offer here is not only food, it’s a human connection, even when we must stay physically farther apart.”

Early on a recent morning, the sun came down the city’s canyons, hitting the white blooms of the pear trees behind the church. Construction workers walked west from the subway stops and kept going, to the under-construction buildings bordering the Hudson River, and soon the cranes started swinging against the blue sky and the elevators on tracks outside the buildings’ steel frameworks were going up and down. By eight o’clock, most of the staff had shown up, and some were preparing that day’s entrée—baked ham with sweet potato. Seagulls shrieked as they swirled overhead toward the river. First in line, by the church gate, a man in two hooded coats sat with his back against the fence, knees up, reading the News. White vans and box trucks pulled to the curb on Ninth Avenue and unloaded crates of broccoli and olive oil. Christopher Molinari, the head chef and culinary manager, said, “When all the restaurants started closing, some sent us their leftover supplies, and we’re still improvising menus from what we got. The food-service situation in the city changed so fast, some of the potatoes they sent us were already peeled.”

By ten-fifteen, the line stretched to Twenty-eighth Street, around the corner, and down the long block between Ninth Avenue and Eighth. A soup-kitchen employee in a jacket of high-visibility green was walking along the line and urging those waiting to maintain spaces of six feet between one another. They complied, reluctantly, but somehow the line kept re-compressing itself. A strange, almost taxicab-less version of traffic went by on Ninth—delivery trucks, police tow trucks, police cars, home-health-care-worker vans, almost empty buses. Now and then a dog-walker, masked or swathed in a scarf, passed. The dogs, unconcerned, were enjoying the sunny day. At ten-thirty, lunch service started. The guests (as the soup kitchen refers to them) were admitted to the serving station one at a time, like travellers in airport security. Opening their lunch sacks, they began to eat standing on the sidewalk or leaning against the Citi Bike stands, or they crossed to the courtyard of a public building across the street and sat on benches by a statue of a soldier in the First World War.

Michael Ottley, the soup kitchen’s C.O.O., stood watching. “We’re doing about eight hundred meals a day right now,” he said. “We may have to increase that as more people lose their jobs. At any time, we’re ready to go to a thousand a day, or higher.” Christopher Molinari stepped outside to join him, along with Ginger Pierce, a volunteer, who was the executive chef at Jams, a farm-to-table restaurant on Fifty-eighth Street, until it recently shut down. Reverend Pearson is concerned that in a bad economy donors might get nervous and the soup kitchen’s funding might go dry. “But we, the staff, are in it to stay,” Molinari said. “This is a great place. As other soup kitchens have closed, Holy Apostles is the last light still on. Without us, a lot of our guests would probably fall by the wayside. We’re not going to let that happen.” On the avenue, masked and gloved delivery people from upscale grocery stores went pedalling by, towing trailers piled with green-and-yellow plastic bins. ♦


A Guide to the Coronavirus


Ian Frazier

2020-03-30 06:00:00

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