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Rolling with Detroit's mobile soup kitchen: Part One

The Salvation Army calls it the Bed and Bread program.

I call it the best and worst ride of my life.

Last weekend, I traveled along on one of the Salvation Army's mobile soup kitchens as it delivered food to Detroit's most troubled neighborhoods.

My position was as observing journalist. Within minutes, I stuck my little notebook in my pocket and grabbed some plastic gloves. It was time to drop the pen and put on some humanity.

The ride pushes your buttons. I call it the best because I saw such raw kindness. When there is a line, kids are pushed to the front. A little girl's bike fell over, and two men using canes came forward to pick it up. A handful of food was met with a quiet greeting and, more often, a blessing for those offering it.

I call it one of the worst for many reasons. Because I realized how ungrateful I am. Because the city is in worse condition than I knew. Because I was on the inside, those in need on the outside. Because I could only give a few hours when the Bed and Bread truck could have used my help all day.

I got the invitation to do the ride along about a month ago. The Salvation Army had been helping people outside Cobo Arena during the sign up for federal aid dollars, and I had been emailing Andrea, the Army's PR person, about that event. She suggested the ride along.

Once we had a date set, I joined Andrea, program head Karen Floyd Sanders and Major John Turner at the Acres of Hope Detroit Harbor Light Center on Lawton. I dressed warmly: winter coat, hat, gloves. Notebook, wallet, car keys. Ready to ride.

First, we visited the loading docks. Three red-and-white Salvation Army trucks are filled to capacity with food. Sandwiches. Hot soup. Bananas. Tubs of hot chocolate. Granola bars (snacks, essentially. They're supposed to be eaten later to keep people going, possibly until morning).

“If they ask for another meal, we give them an extra meal,” Sullivan said. “We know that might be breakfast the next day.”

The Salvation Army receives the food through area food banks like Forgotten Harvest and Gleaners. (Forgotten Harvest supplies The Salvation Army annually with more than 700,000 pounds of perishable food items valued at $1.59 a pound -- at no expense to the Army.)

“We have to work together because the problem is so big no one can tackle it by themselves,” Maj. Turner said.

The trucks go out daily. Every day. Holidays. Sticky summer days. Frigid, gray winter days. Each is staffed with two people and hopefully a volunteer to offer an extra hand. It helps to have someone else on board so the staff can set up for the next stop. (Note: Ms. Williams, one of the people working on my particular truck, said she would like to have me back; it seems my momma raised a fine helper.)

The three trucks have some 45 stops to make. They start around noon and finish about 6 p.m. They serve 5,000 meals daily. Some stops have a dozen people to feed; others top out at 50 and more.

We hit the road, our observation van trailing one of the trucks. It's a long ride to the first stop.

“They count on it because it is seven days a week,” Sullivan said. “The truck is the symbol. They recognize it for the food.”

When we stop, people start coming out to meet the truck. They stare at the van. At this point, I'm feeling queasy, a mix of grim realization at what I'm watching and my own discomfort. The coat is too hot. The setting is too real.

Part Two...coming tomorrow.

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  • 1

    Well-done and well-told, Karen.

    This right here -- this is how Assignment Detroit continues to show it's not about parachute-in journalism, but rather about finding, reporting, interpreting and presenting street-level stories with impact . . .

    . . . by professionals such as you, Darrell and other stakeholders who were here before this past summer and will remain after September 2010.

    Great job. It seems your momma also raised a fine storyteller.

  • 2

    Now that was a heart warming story. These small moments of kindness are what keeps hope alive.

  • 3

    Karen - This isn't directed at you but as an observation about many who do charity work in Detroit. Detroit consistently ranks amongst the most charitable communities, the number of churches, outreach programs and so on would make one think that there is more than enough good will and help to "fix" Detroits many problems.

    What I find odd, is that despite all this charity, they don't seem to amount to much. Many suburbanites, volunteer for an hour a week to work at a soup kitchen, or clean up a vacant lot, or paint a park bench. This is all very noble, but then they drive back to their community far from Detroit, spend no money supporting Detroit entrepreneurs, or supporting the tax base.

    What Detroit needs is not handouts, or park benches painted, or anther soup kitchn. What it needs is residents. Residents to share in the tax burden. Residents to support new businesses. Residents to increase density which will increase services.

    I question what use so many churches, soup kitchens, and charities are in a city, when the net value of what they've achieved amounts to very little.

    Charities do not create jobs, generate a tax base, or improve any of the things vital to a city. They are a bandaid. Residents make a city work. If you want to do anything for Detroit, move here and support local businesses. Making sandwiches for an hour a week may make you feel good, but I think thats about all it'll do.

  • 5

    That is a valid point. Living in Detroit is not for everyone, no doubt. However, I question the usefulness of such charities. Whether they do more to serve the ones they proclaimed to help, or serve those volunteers conscience more than anything else. Giving people who volunteer a sense of satisfaction, while only serving as a bandaid to the problems they attempt to fix.

    Look at it this way, this region has finite resources, finite tax base. It would seem odd to me to volunteer to clean a park in Detroit, but at the same move to a far flung community that needs new parks and new roads built, thereby diluting resources for parks/roads that already exist in Detroit and need repair while the state builds new infrastructure for new communities. In the end, volunteer to clean a park really amounts to not much given how much newer communities have thinned the resources for the region.

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