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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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