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Rolling with Detroit's mobile soup kitchen - Part Two

Back on The Salvation Army's Bed and Bread truck, a mobile soup kitchen that feed some 5,000 people daily, 365 days a year…

I watch at the first stop. I'm more than happy just to be an observer.

It's not because I'm scared or lazy. It's just weird to jump out of the van and start interviewing people who are there for a meal. There's something too slick about it. I'm not ready to get into people's faces.

Some who ask for meals are homeless, Maj. John Turner tells me. Most are unemployed. Others have a house and job – but they need a way to stretch their dollars. Getting a meal here allows them to have enough to cover utilities, Turner said.

Sunny weather means the numbers go up. People are around more, so they hear drivers honk the horn to announce the truck's arrival. Plus, kids are out of school and the parents need to get everyone fed.

Winter is a busy season as well. Yet fewer people may seek meals because they are more worried about finding shelter, Karen Floyd Sanders notes. (A full-time social worker rides along five days a week to offer help, like a place to stay at the shelter, substance-abuse counseling or support if they want to get information on the Army's programs, like getting a GED.)

This year, the demand for services in certain areas of The Salvation Army's work has gone up as much as 60 percent, Maj. Turner tells me. The Bed and Bread program consistently sees increases. Part of this is due to a new routing system they have, which put the trucks in more high-need areas. Partly it is due to the area's dramatically high unemployment rate.

Detroit's estimated unemployment rate is about 28 percent. Some one in three Detroit residents lives in poverty. About one in five Michigan children live in poverty. The ugly statistics go on and on.

At the second stop, I'm ready to get out. The van is unbearably hot. I feel useless. I'm taking lots of notes about other Salvation Army activities (more on those later). But I hate the idea of just hanging out while that truck is putting meals out there.

So, Andrea (Westfall, the PR lady for the Army/Franco Public Relations Group) nudges me. It's time to get out. I'm like some stumbling beast, trying to fit my huge self into this tiny truck. Ms. Williams is so petite she looks like my teenage babysitter, not some soup kitchen superhero.

I hand out a few hot chocolates and help Ms. Williams put tops on the hot soup. The soup, by the way, looks delicious. There are pieces of chicken, vegetables and spices floating in a rich broth. The sandwiches aren't thin, sad lunch meat. They're thick slices of ham on fluffy bread. The bananas are ripe and free of bruises.

“Put me to work,” I tell my drivers.

We get ready for the next stop. Once prepared, I buckle up and settle down in the back while Ms. Williams and the other staffer drive up front. I'm so oddly quiet in the back that Ms. Williams calls out to check on me.

“Just thinking,” I reply.

The houses flying by the window are run down in some parts, well-manicured in others. Generally, they are in poor condition; most look empty in fact. Some kids are outside playing together. A man walks to his car, ready for church. I see graffiti, tall grass, Angels' Night posters warning people that the abandoned houses are being watched.

At our stop, I pulled on my plastic gloves again. This time, I'm focusing on handing out hot chocolate without burning myself or anyone else. Everyone gets a full cup and I preserve my skin for another day. But I'm a little shaky.

Ms. Williams steps back and lets me take over. She seems plenty content to get the sandwiches ready and organize the truck for future stops. Everything is humming along. Everyone is getting their meals in a timely, chatting in line, talking to me through the window.

“Hey, white girl,” one older woman addresses me. “You have any coffee or just hot chocolate?”

No coffee, sorry. She just smiles, bugs me about Gov. Jennifer Granholm. I take no responsibility for Jenny G., I tell her.

Some 45 people receive meals at this stop. Many come back for another sandwich or banana. Kids receive a special bag with additional food in it. (The kids also ask two cups of hot chocolate each. I would have done the same; it was cold that day and it smelled like toasted marshmallows.)

And, with that, the trip is over. I thank Ms. Williams for putting up with me. She laughs and reminds me to come back. On Thanksgiving Day, they'll be doing full turkey dinners: fresh bird, mashed potatoes, green beans. “The gravy goes right here. I could use you,” she said.

Ultimately, I decided not to talk to anyone receiving meals on the record. I spoke to people through my window, and that felt a lot more natural to me. I didn't want to be Reporter Girl. I wanted to be helpful. That's all.

Did I make the right decision? I'm not sure. Perhaps getting their words (and names) would have been more interesting to you, the reader. But I felt like my presence was too glaring. I was just too obvious and the situation was too serious, I felt.

Andrea tells me that's common on your first ride. Ultimately, I plan on taking another. Many more, actually. The Salvation Army could use a lot more of me.

And a lot more of you. There is a Bed and Bread Club. Donate $10 a month ($120 annually) and you could feed one child or adult through The Salvation Army for a year.

That sounds pretty good.

To read another reporter's take on the ride, check out this article from The Detroit News. The video also is insightful.

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