The 1,130 soup kitchen guests, as they're respectfully called, began gathering
outside the church doors an hour early, curling around the corner in a long line
to await a free main meal - their safety-net highlight in another day of being
down and out, part of the working poor, or surviving somewhere in between.
The repast, at 2,500 calories a serving, steamed aromatically: chicken à
la king, rice, buttered spinach, peaches. A staff member in the nave of the
building, the Church of the Holy Apostles, cued dozens of volunteer helpers:
"Ladies and gentlemen, it's showtime. Thanks be to God." And from
Ninth Avenue in Manhattan, the diners flowed in.
The sight of masses of Americans gratefully chowing down on free food is indeed
a show, an amazingly discreet one that is classified not as outright hunger
but as "food insecurity" by government specialists who are busy measuring
the growing lines at soup kitchens and food pantries across the nation. There
were 25.5 million supplicants regularly lining up in 2002; they were joined
by 1.1 million more the next year. And even more arrive as unemployment and
other government programs run out.
Much as the diners at Holy Apostles peered ahead to see what was being dished
up at the steam tables, soup kitchen administrators across the country are currently
eying governments' trilevel budget season and wincing at all the politicians'
economizing vows. They know that "budget tightening" eventually means
longer lines outside their doors.
"It's a desperate thing," said the Rev. Bill Greenlaw, director of
the Holy Apostles charity, one of the largest among 1,298 kitchens and pantries
regularly helping more than one million residents in New York City. "Every
level of government seems to have the same mantra, that these programs are vulnerable.
"We're bracing that all three levels of government are coming down at
the same time."
Most immediately, food charities are pleading against further cuts in the federal
emergency food and shelter program, which directly fights hunger. Last year,
48 soup kitchens closed in the city as supplies were exhausted, and hundreds
of others reported to be making do by cutting back on daily portions.
Beyond that, however, administrators know that the myriad of severe program
cuts looming in Washington - for everything from low-income wage supplements
to health care spending for poor people - can only lead to further cuts down
the revenue food chain in statehouses and city halls and, finally, longer lines
of people silently begging for food.
The budget debate in the Republican-run Capitol presents a Hobson's choice
between the House's five-year, $30 billion-plus in program cuts for the poor
and the Senate's $2.8 billion in cuts - one-tenth the pain, but focused most
heavily on nutrition programs. The compromise cuts are likely to lean toward
the House, levying more than their fair budget share on the poor, even as President
Bush and the G.O.P. leaders argue that still more upper-bracket tax cuts are
So Father Greenlaw can only turn to pleading for even more charity from the
city's better-off residents.
According to a survey by the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, seven
out of 10 of the city's pantries and kitchens are "faith based," using
the terminology of the Bush administration. But their besieged directors overwhelmingly
warn that government, not charities, must take the lead if poverty is to be
"We're faith-based by the old rules, not the new ones," Father Greenlaw
carefully noted. "We'll be feeding more guests unless and until society
decides we don't have to tolerate a huge underclass in our cities."
In the meantime, the pungent scene in the nave at Holy Apostles is unabashedly
hunger-based. People are being fed, not proselytized, at dining tables where
the pews used to be. A midday hubbub of satiation rises up, plain as the pipes
of the church organ, as the line lengthens outside.