By Scott McLean
Scott McLean is among our longest-serving Board members at Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen. Today, he serves as the Board Secretary. He’s also a regular volunteer at DESK, and can often be found working the line or sweeping floors. Outside of his volunteer work at DESK, Scott is Professor of Political Science at Quinnipiac University. –ed.
When I started as volunteer at DESK around 1997, the organization still operated as it had since 1987, a joint mission of the churches around the New Haven Green. Each church would host an evening meal in their space. My church, First & Summerfield Methodist, hosted on Tuesday evenings in the fellowship hall of our basement. It was my job to recruit volunteer servers, serve food, and occasionally fix plugged toilets during mealtimes. Frequently I would sit at the table for supper with guests and discuss what was happening in New Haven and the world. After dinner, we would put away tables and chairs and mop the entire floor of our fellowship hall. I spent many hours mopping those floors with my dear friend, Mike Clarke, one of the founders of DESK and a member of my church. This was my weekly routine for about eight years, until DESK was able to centralize its food preparation and serving in the Center Church Parish House at 311 Temple St. in New Haven.
In 2002, I joined the DESK Board of Directors, where I continue to serve as the Secretary today. Seeing how DESK works behind the scenes has made the action of serving food to our guests even more meaningful to me. It has really allowed me to see the bigger picture and DESK’s impact, and not only the immediate and satisfying sense of helping people who are hungry in New Haven.
DESK serves up to 150 people on any given evening in the summertime, and so many of our guests are dealing with food insecurity while holding down one or more jobs. Each evening, DESK provides hot cooked nutritious meals with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and an appropriate serving of meat (with vegetarian options available). We have a weekly Food Pantry to provide groceries, and we serve as an emergency food bank for the city in periods of crisis. Since 2009, we have event maintained a regular supply of pet food—which we call “Thunder’s Pantry,” after one of our most gracious patron’s horse.
While the American economy has recovered a great deal since the Great Recession that started in 2008, many have been left behind. Millions of people in the US today are one job loss or medical crisis away from food insecurity. By food insecurity I mean a condition where households have insufficient income to provide enough food for everyone in the household to live a healthy, active life. One in eight Americans experience food insecurity today.
In New Haven County, 13.9 percent of residents are food insecure. That’s almost 120,000 people. Of those, 60 percent are eligible for SNAP (Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program—formerly called “food stamps”). The other 40 percent—over 49,000 people—do not qualify for federal support, yet they are still food insecure. These are folks who have one or more jobs but who often have to make hard choices at the end of the month between rent, heat, and groceries. It is in this group that DESK has its most life-changing impact.
DESK is effective at moving our community’s food resources where they can boost food security and do the most good. We provide nutrition and health. But the most wonderful aspect is how DESK does it: in a way that creates common ground where community has a chance to grow. The dining experience at DESK allows relationships to strengthen. People feel safer, more respected, and known. And even if you cannot directly serve food or sit at a table with some of our guests, there are still so many ways you can be a part of the DESK mission. These days, I am only able to serve once per month; but my connection to DESK is felt when I encounter guests I know (and former guests from way back)—on the Green, on our sidewalks, in restaurants, at concerts, and in the supermarket. Regardless of how we arrived there, DESK is something we have in common.
This is what makes DESK a special civic institution in my city.