A former newspaper reporter and magazine editor, Lee Seglem is assistant director of the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation (SCI) in Trenton and former board chairman at the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK). He wrote “In Plain Sight,” published by iUniverse, to show how the story of TASK exemplifies a larger crisis: that providers of emergency food and shelter are scrambling to meet rising demand while battling hunger’s complex underlying causes. Here are some excerpts from the preface:
I live in a verdant slice of suburban America along the Delaware River about 30 miles northeast of Philadelphia, By any measure, my town, Lower Makefield, population 32,000, is a good place to raise a family. The median annual household income is in the neighborhood of $100,000. The homes are comfortable, the streets well-lit, the crime rate low. In spring and summer, people plant flowers, mow lawns (or have them mowed) and watch their kids chase fireflies. Fall and winter bring soccer tournaments, bright lights, and generous visits from Santa Claus. We have a public golf course, a community pool and a recreation system second to none. Property taxes are on the high end, but so is convenience. Within a three-mile radius of the township building, landscaped office parks bulge with every kind of doctor, dentist, and therapist under the sun. There are houses of worship for every leading religious persuasion, banks for every checking preference, and food stores for every culinary need.
Drive north along the Delaware for five or ten miles, then cross the river into New Jersey heading east, then south and west in a broad arc forming the rough circumference of a circle, and you will pass through a succession of residential and commercial venues of similar self-secure circumstance: Washington Crossing, New Hope and Solebury on the Pennsylvania side, and in New Jersey, Lambertville, Hopewell, Pennington, Princeton, Lawrenceville, West Windsor and Hamilton — an impressive array of zip codes, to be sure.
But amid the shared affluence and proximate location of these communities, there is a phenomenon no one much likes to talk about, even though it is as plain as the map on the wall: Collectively, these locales form a ring of wealth and abundance around a place that has very little of either. That place is called Trenton, no less the capital city of one of wealthiest states in the nation, and, once upon a time, a booming manufacturing and retail center in its own right, but now very much the portal to another world just beyond our trim and tidy backyards.
From any point on this geographic compass of prosperity, you can drive into this other world and in a matter of minutes be among people who cannot afford a decent meal. Their lives are fractured by poverty, disability, illness, unemployment, hard luck, drug abuse, old age, neglect, bad judgment, or some combination of all of that, and they stand in line every day counting on the kindness of strangers to put a plate of hot food in their hands.
Some have jobs but walk a tightrope between paying rent and eating. Others are so far off the grid they spend the night in abandoned buildings or under bridges. Talk with them, and they speak of food in the context of survival.
The swiftness of the transition to this world is surreal, a trip so abrupt you might as well be flipping some weird kind of switch. Just as quickly as you arrived, you can drive away and be back on your deck sipping a drink or waiting for a latte in Starbucks or shopping at Wegman’s or hiking in the woods or tucking into a deep-dish pizza at the Olive Garden, listening as a person at the table next to you looks at the menu and casually says, “I’m starving.”
To the uninitiated, crossing this divide can be unnerving, frightening even. To someone who has gone over and back time and again, watching the face of need loom in the windshield, then quickly recede in the rearview mirror — but never really go away — it is an experience that, over time, puts quite a lot of things in perspective.
Hunger, of course, is not unique to Trenton; communities around it have pockets of need as well, some of it substantial. And I certainly don’t mean to imply that hunger is a defining social condition of this proud old commercial hub, which is struggling — with some measure of success — to reinvent itself and which faces enough challenges without needless negative exaggeration by some nattering out-of-towner.
It would also be patently ridiculous to suggest that the city’s municipal neighbors, or, for that matter, the thriving suburbs of any city, somehow contrive to foist hunger and want upon their urban counterpart. These problems and the tangled web of social, political, economic and moral issues that cause and sustain them are far too complicated for anything quite that simplistic.
I will also stipulate that I am not nearly so naive or uninformed as to think that hunger is somehow confined to a single state, region or nation, or that it is no worse elsewhere. Of course it is. Even school children know about killer famines that periodically ravage great swaths of humanity across the planet.
But all of that said, Trenton is where I learned about hunger, where it became personal for me, where it shed a thick hide of abstraction and touched my life, if only from the outside looking in. It is also where I learned something else: that the kindness of strangers can make a difference, even against a scourge that lingers in plain sight and never goes away.
My introduction to what bureaucrats and policy wonks dispassionately, and with a certain Orwellian flair, refer to these days as “food insecurity” or “food insufficiency,” — and to what is being done about it in this small corner of the world, came early one afternoon in 1999 when I went for a walk across town. I work for Trenton’s largest employer, the State of New Jersey, and for several years had been donating money through the annual State Employees Charitable Campaign to something called the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen. “TASK,” as it was dubbed in the campaign literature, sounded like a worthwhile cause, but I had never been there, and the image in my mind’s eye was stuck on a bleak Depression-era stereotype of bread lines and grim-faced men shuffling around in tattered overcoats. I decided to have a look.
No sooner had I gotten within a hundred yards of the building when a glimpse into the fundamental nature and reputation of the place preceded my arrival. A woman who happened to be headed in the same direction approached me on the street and, before I had a chance to even think about exercising the usual avoidance-of-panhandling reflex, she was in my face, but not for money. Rather, she seemed genuinely curious about where I was going. When I told her, she launched into a monologue about some of the practicalities of being poor in the city, and as we walked along together, it quickly became apparent that TASK was definitely on the plus side of her meager ledger.
When we reached the wide open front door, her parting words were about the food: “They feed you real good here. Real good.” And with that, she smiled and stepped inside.
I followed a few moments later and was immediately struck by brightness. Sunlight streaming through a bank of windows to my right illuminated a large rectangle of space filled with tables and chairs. Colorful artwork hung the entire length of the wall running beneath the windows, and as I scanned the room, I noticed that every available nook on every wall seemed to boast paintings and drawings of one sort or another. Directly ahead, on the far side of an expanse of tables, stood a glass and metal structure resembling the food service counter of a school cafeteria, only smaller.
Behind it, framed by a pass-through in the wall, I could see people wiping down ovens and metal table tops and mopping the floor. Lunch was winding down, and a few people lingered, talking quietly in clusters. Off to one side, a man sorted through a table covered with magazines and paperback books, free for the taking. Across the way, someone surveyed a bulletin board tacked full of announcements, service ads and phone numbers.
I thought, This is a soup kitchen? It looks and feels like a community center.
Abruptly, I was approached by a tall man wearing khakis, a polo shirt and the cordial but scrutinizing expression of someone whose job obviously included finding out what was the deal with this bewildered stranger loitering in his midst. I will not soon forget this first meeting with Peter Wise, TASK’s executive director at the time. That is, in part, because I completely misread the man, just as I had the woman who had approached me on the way in, just as I had the whole notion of what a soup kitchen was supposed to look like.
I immediately pegged Wise for a guy in the thick of a long career in urban social work. In fact, as I would learn much later on, he had spent most of his adult life as an engineer and aerospace industry manager, helping to design satellites. When the company down-sized and pulled out of town, Wise decided to retire — then wound up running a soup kitchen because, spiritually, he believed he was “called” to do just that.
So much for first impressions. But as I would also learn in time, that’s the way it is at TASK. First impressions, conventional wisdom, preconceived notions — the usual games of expectation and pre-judgment that tend in so many situations to be long on assumption and short on facts — are particularly vulnerable to inaccuracy inside the four walls of a place like this.
As the last of the lunchtime diners trickled out and the chairs were being stacked, the tables cleaned for the day, I asked about volunteer opportunities, and Wise ticked off a range of options: prepping in the kitchen, filling trays on the serving line, tutoring, mentoring, raising money, donating food, the list went on. No hard sell, just an open invitation to help. After 10 minutes or so, we shook hands, and as I walked out the door heading back across town to my office, one thing he told me played over in my mind.
“We serve people unconditionally,” he said. “No questions asked. No one is ever turned away.”
Much has happened since I first crossed the threshold of 72 1/2 Escher Street that summer day in 1999. In 2006 Peter Wise retired after a record eight years at the helm and, in his place, came a garrulous, committed social-service veteran in the person of Dennis Micai, whose attitude and approach can be summed up by what he told a local newspaper, only half-jokingly, upon stepping up. “At some point,” Micai said, “I’d like to put us out of business.”
He has his work cut out. New programs continue to be launched and others expanded, the staff is larger, and TASK is a busier place all around. Beyond serving as Trenton’s only weekday soup kitchen, the organization spends a good deal of time and money fostering self-sufficiency through adult education, computer training, life-skills instruction, award-winning arts programs, and multi-dimensional social-service counseling.
Keeping pace with this requires hard work and aggressive fundraising, and TASK relies heavily upon a small legion of dedicated volunteers and generous donors who help sustain an annual operating budget approaching $2 million, a budget that has quadrupled over the past decade.
It doesn’t take a genius to recognize the underside of what is happening here: The soup kitchen is growing, in large part, because the problem that gave rise to it in the first place — “food insecurity,” “food insufficiency,” hunger by any other name — is growing. In fact, were hunger a legitimate economic enterprise, it might well be appropriately listed on Wall Street as a 21st century growth industry, thriving in one of the richest states in the wealthiest nation on the face of the earth.
Dennis Micai’s got it right: Why not put this miserable business of hunger out of business just the way it is, right there in front of us, right now?
Will we ever find the courage and the commitment to do that?
Lee Seglem’s “In Plain Sight” costs $25, and all proceeds go to TASK. It can be ordered by sending a check for $32, including shipping and handling, to Jamie Parker, In Plain Sight, TASK, Box 872, Trenton 08605. Books can also be ordered through www.trentonsoupkitchen.org, For information call 609-695-5456, ext. 105.
Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK), 72 1/2 Escher Street, Box 872, Trenton 08605; 609-695-5456; fax, 609-695-1225. Dennis Micai, executive director. www.trentonsoupkitchen.org.