Brian Lin, Contributing Photographer
A two-week closure at an Elm City soup kitchen during the holiday season has prompted other free meal providers to step up their services for the local food insecure population.
Community Soup Kitchen, or CSK, on Broadway typically serves around 200 meals a day, five days a week. It is one of New Haven’s most popular soup kitchens and the only operating one listed by the city that provides lunch more than once a week. But just one week shy of Thanksgiving, CSK closed for sanitization and a two-week quarantine after a volunteer tested positive for COVID-19. As locals wait for the nonprofit to resume its services on Dec. 7, other soup kitchens are adapting to serve more clients than usual.
“With CSK closed, there’s no other daily place to get lunch in New Haven,” said Steve Werlin, executive director of Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen, or DESK. “It definitely puts added pressure on the whole system.”
DESK serves dinner five days a week from two parishes on Temple Street. Werlin said that they “beefed up” their dinners to make up for some of the calories that clients may miss out on without access to lunches at CSK. He said DESK also saw an uptick in customers towards the end of November, with a high of 160 people as compared to their usual 120.
According to CSK’s Board Chair Burton Alter, CSK was serving between 150 and 250 meals a day before its closure. He said they increased the number of meals they were serving over the last month, partially due to St. Ann’s soup kitchen shutting down.
St. Ann’s, which is located in Christ Bread of Life Parish, closed permanently at the end of October. The church sold the basement the kitchen used to operate out of, which put an end to the lunches they served five days a week. Although St. Ann’s is in Hamden, the Independent reported that the church has directed former clients to DESK and CSK — both soup kitchens in New Haven.
“The needs citywide are going to increase and it’s going to be more difficult as the weather gets colder,” Alter told the News. “People are going to be struggling and we need to adapt.”
When the pandemic hit in the spring, CSK attempted to adapt its services to contain the spread of the virus. Since March, the kitchen has been offering takeout lunches instead of opening up the building’s dining room. Despite its temporary closure, the volunteers are on track to serve more than 80,000 meals this calendar year — far more than their usual 74,000. Alter said CSK’s efforts to socially distance may have helped contain the possible outbreak resulting from the infection of a single volunteer.
Representatives from other local soup kitchens have noticed an increase in their daily number of customers, but said they were not sure if the uptick was directly related to the closure of St. Ann’s and CSK’s hiatus. Sunrise Cafe serves breakfast every weekday from 57 Olive Street. Art Hunt, an administrator for Sunrise, told the News that he saw a slight increase in the number of clients on Wednesday — around 35 more — bringing Sunrise’s daily total to around 100.
CSK’s closure was unfortunately timed, given that the soup kitchen had already prepared to serve a Thanksgiving meal on the Tuesday before the holiday. An interview featured on CSK’s website said that last year, the nonprofit served more than 300 families at the Thanksgiving meal.
“We had everything in place to [serve on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving] and it didn’t happen because we were closed,” said Alter. “We all felt that there was a need that had to be met but we were incapable of doing it. [It] was a very difficult, tough time.”
Alter said a two-week quarantine was necessary because CSK wanted to ensure the safety of its clients and volunteers.
However, Werlin — the executive director at DESK — questioned whether CSK could have planned further in advance to prevent a full closure. Several weeks ago, two staff members at DESK caught the virus but the soup kitchen managed to avoid a total shutdown.
“We didn’t shut down because back in March, we sat down and we drew up a policy and procedure document to provide us with a playbook as to what we would do,” said Werlin. “We were starting from the position that we need to stay open — [planning] how can we stay open if we have an exposure on site.”
Werlin said they pulled the infected staff members out, quarantined any close contacts and tested the entire team. He said that so long as other staff could come in to substitute, the space was usable once cleaning was performed.
Werlin said he wondered if CSK could have stayed open if they avoided the “knee-jerk reaction” of shutting down due to a single exposure. He encouraged all essential services to think proactively rather than reactively about infections on staff.
Hunt praised the city’s efforts to care for New Haven’s homeless and food insecure populations, but pointed out that soup kitchens are a “band-aid” that do not address systemic issues. He emphasized that soup kitchens are “skating on really thin ice” as they navigate through the pandemic.
“Soup kitchens need to work in cooperation with really well-organized, thoughtful policy to address the root causes of the problem — the jobs piece of it, the wage piece of it, the mental health piece of it,” said Hunt. “New Haven is probably in the top 10 percent [of cities] in terms of working to solve these issues.”
CSK also delivers packaged meals to hotels occupied by homeless Elm City residents as a part of the city’s effort to de-densify shelters.
Natalie Kainz | firstname.lastname@example.org