Exactly 20 years ago to the week, Edwin Meese, Ronald Reagan’s attorney general, kicked off the yuletide season by noting, "People go to soup kitchens because the food is free and that’s easier than paying for it."
"I cannot imagine any statement so cruel, so unrealistic, or so just plain stupid," responds Interpool’s senior vice president Jane Lowe-Rodriguez. She should know. She has seen much more of the world than Reagan’s cloistered attorney general. In her role as senior vice president in charge of credit decisions, Rodriguez has visited all 30 nations in which Princeton-based Interpool leases its freight shipping containers and chassis. First hand, she has traveled far beyond the corporate halls and witnessed the tin-shack squalor of the Philippines, Indonesia, and Ecuador.
More intimately, she experiences the desperate poverty of her neighbors at the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen at 72 1/2 Escher Street, barely 15 minutes ride from her Pennington home. It is a ride she takes frequently, coming to serve patrons, deliver the goods she has raised through her children’s school, or to bring Interpool’s many contributions and contributors.
Trenton, capital city of the most affluent state in America, claims 40 percent illiteracy, over 18,000 of its 85,000 population living below the poverty level, and one of the highest rates of food insecurity in the nation. And this poverty is growing. Ignorance and appalling want, all ringed by central New Jersey’s wealthy belt.
It is surprisingly easy to dart in and out of Trenton and bypass this destitution. But not for Rodriguez. "There is something blatantly unfair going on down in center city," she states. "These are good people — my neighbors. God has blessed us with so much, yet their only concern is getting food and warmth for that day."
Rodriguez grew up in Uniondale, Long Island, which she calls "a very fortunate town." Having the revenue from nearby Roosevelt racetrack allowed her to go to very well-funded schools, while her father sold Studebakers through the week and photographed weddings on the weekends. "My mom always felt an obligation to pay back and spent much of her time working for Catholic church charities," she says.
After attending Nassau College and Hofstra University, Rodriguez settled in Manhattan, where she worked in accounts receivable for Panasonic and Elgin Watch. She arrived in 1969, the glory days of social concern, and found her way into the programs of Mayor John V. Lindsay. She volunteered in Queens at a city-run halfway house for developmentally disabled teens that sought to place girls just out of institutions into jobs. "I was, among other things, the assistant basketball coach," she laughs. "Probably one of the shortest in all New York." It was here her eyes first opened.
Ingrained in the American psyche is the myth that each of us starts on a level playing field with equal opportunities, that the United States is a true meritocracy where any girl can grow up to be president or a basketball star. She has only to work and want it hard enough.
"Bunk," insists Rodriguez. "It is all luck. When I was 27, I had three different firms competing for my services. By sheer good luck I happened to join Interpool; the only one that has continued to make money every year. By sheer luck, I happened to get Marty Tuchman as CEO, who believes strongly in promoting women and minorities. And finally, by God’s grace, my house did not burn down last night. So I can afford to be a helper rather than a patron at the Trenton Soup Kitchen."
The worst result of the meritocracy myth, Rodriguez feels, is that it fosters America’s great bigotry against the poor. Reagan talked of "the poor by choice," but others point out that it’s fine to pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you have boots, have eaten in the last three days, don’t sleep under a bridge, and have not inherited drug addiction from absent parents.
Here’s how Rodriguez got involved: From Pennington’s Toll Gate Grammar School, Jane’s eldest daughter Emily carried home a sheet from principal Dick Fitzpatrick telling of plans to aid the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (T.A.S.K.).
The need was so close to home, and the school’s response was so energetic, that Jane was drawn in. Now her younger daughter Laura also attends Toll Gate, and with Fitzpatrick now working as principal at Stony Brook Elementary, under another principal, Myra Bugbee, the school’s aid has aggressively expanded.
It is a remarkable effort for a tiny grammar school of 300 students. For Thanksgiving, students and families undertake the donation of 1,000 meals for soup kitchen patrons. Each child is assigned items to bring in. They bake pies, prepare decorations, and gather grocery store donations. On the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, families come together and slice up the turkeys in a large carving party. Nearby Timberlane School prepares a take-home lunch and other Hopewell schools pitch in.
It is masterpiece of logistics and good will. Bugbee is now assembling a Community Action Team to help increase the school’s and families’ volunteer efforts. The second Wednesday of each month, Rodriguez leaves Interpool at 3 p.m. to join others from Toll Gate and drive to Escher Street to serve food in the soup kitchen’s evening meal. "It is an unbelievable spiritual high," she states excitedly. "You cannot know how good it is for the soul."
One snowy Friday, December 5, I decided to step into Rodriguez’ shoes and volunteer to help serve the mid-day meal. Monday through Friday the doors open for an 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. lunch, with an evening meal served at 4 to 6 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. Arriving at 9:30 in the morning, I opened the door to a total surprise.
I had envisioned a dim and dingy hall where grim-visaged folk huddled silently over steamy bowls of thin broth. My Hollywood illusions were shattered. Floor to ceiling the bright hall glowed with artwork — haunting pictures and poetry all composed by patrons as part of TASK’s Art and Ideas Program.
At the tables sat lively pairs of individuals deep in discussion. These were students learning English, basic math and G.E.D preparation, taught by volunteer tutors like Brother James Miller. "You cannot believe the enthusiasm of these people and how much they want to learn," says Miller.
"Here. Take these clothes and spread them out on the table. There’s a lot of good winter things for the folks." T.A.S.K. director Peter Wise, himself just recovering from pneumonia, tosses me several large garbage bags of donations from local churches. Wise spent 36 years at RCA Astrospace, most recently as manager of thermal engineering, helping to launch satellites. When, after a succession of owners, the Princeton-Hightstown Road plant closed in 1998, he was given an offer to work in California. He was not thinking of changing careers. But, since the day he began volunteering with a Saturday soup kitchen in 1985, Wise had felt he had a calling to help the people he calls his brothers and sisters. And perhaps it was only a coincidence — but at just that time T.A.S.K. needed a new director.
"People often say that with degrees in math and physics, this must be a strange shift for me," Wise smiles. "But management is management. This is a corporation, we have a product, a staff to work with, and new programs to meet client needs."
Wise takes me to a side room where Dennis Randall holds court over an impressive array of donated computers. "Our people can learn basic computer skills, do self-tutoring, and, of course, use the Internet to find jobs," he explains. "We even train them in computer repair." Another client need met.
It is now meal time and, slipping on my apron, hat and gloves, I join volunteers from a Methodist church and pass out bread. It is a miserable day and folks of every imaginable ethnic group line up stamping off snow and joking with Doris next to me as they select two desserts. It feels more like my college cafeteria than some fictive despairing rescue mission. There is absolutely no denying the poverty of these people. Their desperate needs are evident on every aspect of face and clothing. Yet for some brief moments, respite comes into their lives and most all embrace it good heartedly. A place of joy — a place of sadness, as Wise is so fond of saying.
"Good Morning Ladies and Gentlemen," Wise announces over the microphone "Today is Friday, December 5…" When life is a cardboard box under a bridge, it is often helpful to be reminded of the date. Wise reminds people of the nearby Rescue Mission of Trenton, which can hold up to 200 on this freezing day. He covers the menu. Today patrons can gather desserts and bread donated by local stores, green beans, yams, chicken. A Cub Scout troop has provided brown bag take-home meals. And of course good hot soup. Plates heap high and a frenzied wrapper busily bags up any patron’s leftovers.
Today’s nearly 400 meals have been prepared by the astoundingly creative chef Samuel Johnson, who comes to the Garden State from Nigeria. Frugally, he blends the donated foods with supplies from his minimal budget. It is not surprising the result is so enticing. Johnson has served as chef in New Brunswick’s Hyatt Regency and has fed both Governors McGreevy and Whitman.
The snow packs higher and wetter and I wonder why the hall is not completely overflowing. "It is the beginning of the month yet," explains Gene Jones, a long time patron. "People still have money. You see, on the first, family welfare checks come. On the third, social security arrives, and on the sixth aid for individual, non-family men comes. Nearer the end of the month, everyone has run out of money."
Jones, like at least one third of those coming to the soup kitchen, is one of the working poor. He is one of those whom Reagan accused of "cadging meals from the system." "I do tree work," Jones says. "In fact, we were going to go up today, before this." He jerks his thumb toward the snowy window. No work means no pay that day for Jones.
America’s most affluent state, New Jersey, has just passed Hawaii for the dubious honor of most expensive. Jones would have to earn $19.74 an hour to come up with the $900 an average two-bedroom apartment costs in Mercer County. Even if he worked every day, a minimum-wage job would net only him $10,712 a year — before taxes. "I’ve been homeless before, a long while," he says, "and let me tell you it is tough." Jones now is blessed with a home he shares with 15 other "family members."
"It’s shocking to ride through Trenton and see so many people in that dire condition," says Rodriguez. "When my Interpool department moved from New York to Princeton in l987, I also moved. I wanted to live where there was a town center, so I looked at towns with a `Main Street’ and selected Pennington. But you cannot escape poverty." For years she has aided Interpool’s founder Tuchman in fundraising for the Parkinson Alliance, organizing annual golf outings on each coast. This year she adopted 50 children from Trenton’s Homefront which, among other services, provides Christmas gifts for 1,000 homeless children.
"I brought the list to the office and within one hour, every child was adopted. I had to go back and get another 25 kids," Rodriguez beams. Currently she has turned her talents primarily toward T.A.S.K. She points to company attorney Cathleen Francis and administrative credit analyst Kris Patten-Burd who "like most people here are always ready to volunteer. And of course, there is Mr. Tuchman himself." Seeing the efforts of corporate board members such as Tracey Destribats of Yardville National Bank, Tom Gray of Grand Bank, Peter Haas of KPMG, and attorney Michael Gluck, Tuchman joined the board.
"He has committed to start serving food when the company team begins their monthly service in January," she says. Also anxious to join in are husband Julio Rodriguez, a marine surveyor who runs A.C.P. Inc. in Pennington, and daughter Emily, who is, as her mother puts it, "is a blazing feminist and proud that she’s now old enough to come serve." This January Rodriguez’ co-workers will be launching a greatly expanded service campaign in T.A.S.K.’s direction including not just dedicated volunteer days, but food, material, and fund drives.
From a corporate point of view, there is a great value in this group volunteering. Instead of spending thousands to send a new product group up to Maine on an Outward Bound team-building weekend, some corporations are opting to send their teams as a whole to Escher Street to help serve food. "Firms like Bristol-Myers Squibb, Princeton University, FMC, Janssen, and ETS come in wearing the company shirts and caps," says Wise, "and some take the opportunity to participate in a debriefing session right at the center after the meal is over. They discuss just what has happened here. It works." One of the first casualties of such an experience is sarcasm. Individuals see their co-workers doing good things and they tend to hesitate before hurling barbs or stereotyping each other.
This season, the Trenton Area Soup kicks off a fund drive for its $530,000 expansion project. "It will add an additional 2,500 square feet to the building’s existing 6,000 square foot space," explains T.A.S.K. board vice chair Lee Seglem, who heads the expansion committee.
Architect Steven Cohen of Moran Avenue in Princeton has drawn the plans. Much of the cost will go to a larger walk-in freezer and kitchen area with more appliances. But most of the new space will handle the mountain of donations that pour in from all over Mercer County. "It would be a crime to ever turn away donated food for want of space," says Seglem, "but we are almost facing that now."
Seglem holds the fascinating job of spokesperson for New Jersey’s State Commission for Investigation. His watchdog agency ferrets out grafting inspectors, shoddy sub-code contractors, and a host of frauds against the public. As office head of the state employee’ charitable deduction plan, he decided to stroll down the street to T.A.S.K one day and within a few minutes of entering found himself cutting up vegetables. Within a year, he found himself on the board, where he has happily served for three years.
"Both the patrons here, and the volunteers are so good hearted. There is no barrier," he says. "I have two sons, a freshman at Temple and my youngest in eight grade. They both come down here and love it."
"We must not for a moment view this expansion as a good thing," insists Director Wise. "The good news is that we are making swift progress, but the bad news is that we are going the wrong way." Wise takes no pride in T.A.S.K.’s ability to feed more of Trenton’s wildly increasing numbers of poor and has made advocacy for the poor a formal part of the organization’s mission.
He points to the capital city’s long term downward spiral. From l990 to 2000, the Route 1 corridor boomed and New Jersey just exploded with prosperity. Unemployment dropped to an almost unheard level of 3.9 percent. The richest fifth of Garden State families saw incomes leap up $29,000, while U.S. census figures showed the poorest fifth enduring a decrease of $30. Meanwhile, amidst the lush times, the lines at the Trenton Soup Kitchen grew ever longer.
In 1999 T.A.S.K. served 96,622 meals. By the end of this year it expects to serve about 170,000 meals, which includes those served at an incubator center, established with two other community groups for those in South Trenton. Every day Wise drives his car the 25 minutes from his home in Cranbury to the soup kitchen. "Central New Jersey cannot be economically well with this unhealed abscess at its core. I do not say this for theological or humanitarian reasons, but simply as a logical statement of regional economic realism."
Wise believes there are possible solutions and lists federally subsidized Section 8 housing, for which there are years-long waiting lists now. Childcare, job transportation, and addiction treatment are top necessities on his list. "It is only sensible that we begin to invest in our people to make them productive contributors," says Wise.
Jane Lowe-Rodriguez’ mother died on Christmas Eve last year, and to commemorate her years of charity service the family asked that contributions be made to the soup kitchen in East Hempstead, Long Island. Lowe-Rodriguez fell not far from the Lowe family tree. Perhaps Jane’s daughters Emily and Laura will also grow up in this fine tradition of giving of themselves. But even better, let us hope that they lead the way for making such kitchens everywhere unnecessary. May they close their doors for want of customers. Merry Christmas and hope to all people.
Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK), 72 Escher Street, Box 872, Trenton 08605. Peter Wise, director. 609-695-5456. Www.trentonsoupkitchen.org
T.A.S.K. is a non-sectarian, non-governmental charity that receives 65 percent of its funds from individual givers and less than three percent of its budget from government. About 3,500 meals are served each week, and it requires 25 volunteers for each meal for this service alone. Yet the website lists 29 ways to help T.A.S.K. other than meal service. For instance, 40 volunteer tutors teach 70 students basic math, literacy, preparation for the GED, and computer instruction, including a six-week structured Microsoft Office Program.
Part of T.A.S.K.’s mission is outreach and education, which will be in the forefront of a 20th anniversary fundraising event sponsored by ETS on Saturday, April 24, at the Chauncey Conference Center, Rosedale Road. Entitled "Keeping the Bowl Full: 20 Years of Serving," it begins with a policy forum and panel discussion, "Hunger in America," with keynote speaker Loretta Schwartz-Nobel. From 4:30 to 8 p.m. there will be cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, buffet, silent auction, and jazz and gospel music featuring Barbara Trent. Call 609-695-5456.