Polly Campbell: The need of hunger and the hunger to help 

Sometime toward the beginning of the tapering-off of the Covid pandemic, going stir-crazy and wanting to get started on my retirement goals, I started doing volunteer delivery driving for La Soupe. 

I’ve admired this organization since they started rescuing surplus vegetables and turning them into soup in a tiny café on Round Bottom Road. Chef and caterer Suzy DeYoung was trying to grapple with two tragically absurd realities. First, that 30% to 40% of food produced in the US is never eaten, which amounts to 119 billion pounds a year of discarded food, much of it perfectly edible when it’s thrown away. Second, that lots of Americans don’t have enough to eat. 

Polly Campbell
Polly Campbell

La Soupe has a big new facility in Walnut Hills where it gathers food, transforms much of it into soup or other dishes to make it more useful to the people receiving it, then sends it out to food pantries and other programs, using a sophisticated online system to coordinate the volunteers who do it. 

I thought I knew the city pretty well. During the many years I wrote for the Enquirer, I traveled all over the Cincinnati area, mostly to restaurants. But this delivery task took me to neighborhoods where I’d never been, where there aren’t any restaurants, sometimes not any grocery stores. I set my GPS map to housing project community centers, industrial parks and inner-city schools where I’d find a door or a gate and someone to come open it. We’d unload the boxes together and I’d always ask what their nonprofit did.

The sheer variety of the answers really made an impression on me.

I delivered pre-assembled meals to the Lincoln Grant Scholar House in Covington, where single parents going to college have housing and support for their family while they work to get ahead. 

I backed up to a loading dock in Blue Ash, wondering why I was making a delivery to a generally affluent neighborhood. “There’s a number of trailer parks in Blue Ash and unnoticed low-income people here. People’s budgets just don’t stretch,” said the woman who helped me unload into a neatly arranged food pantry where people could come shop. 

At a West Side school, the food is arranged so the children can pick out what they want to take home. Invariably, they look for something they know their mother would like, said the woman I talked to there. 

I went to Lincoln Heights and OTR and Colerain, to food banks, a soup kitchen, schools, a health clinic. My car was loaded with good food: milk and fruit, vegetables, meat and cheese, salads and bread. I didn’t see anything I wouldn’t have eaten. 

And every time I drove, I got a feeling of satisfaction that I hadn’t really earned, since it was easy to do. But I developed an image of the routes I was driving as a web being spun around the city, and my destinations were junctions in the web, with further lines going out from each of those places. In my mind, the whole network glows, brightest at the junctions, where the food is shared with people who need it by people who care. It’s a combination of a centralized organization at La Soupe, with a very local, neighborhood-based distribution of resources 

I am impressed, always, by the action and the hard work people put into helping others. And especially, the creativity applied to making the help useful and efficient. 

There’s a food pantry out in Clermont County called CNE Cares. Wendy Schuchmann who works there told me they started early in COVID when so many people lost work. Their model is to give families meal kits: all the components of three meals for the week, often incorporating already-made soup, but also recipes and everything needed for them, right down to the spices. They are worried right now about the big reduction in SNAP benefits (food stamps) from higher COVID levels. 

Saturday Hoops gets breakfast from La Soupe. It was “created by some guys who thought kids needed something to do,” said volunteer Jennifer Ware. It’s grown, now offering a full program of things to do on Saturdays at the Winton Hills and Lincoln rec centers, along with lunch and breakfast. Ware and her two children take charge of the breakfast, picking it up from La Soupe on Friday, and showing up with it at the program every Saturday. 

There are over 150 organizations like these that work with La Soupe. 

This charity model isn’t going to solve the inequity that produces the absurd situation of hunger in a land of plenty, which is only getting worse as the gap between rich and poor gets wider. What it can do is give some food to a kid too hungry to pay attention in class, provide some good soup for a stressed-out parent to feed her family, help an elderly person make it to the end of the month. Not to mention saving good food from landfills. 

La Soupe is not hurting for volunteer drivers: They have a whole fleet. But I know that at many points on this web that I’ve gotten a glimpse of, at each nonprofit, there is need for donations of time and caring, for money, participation, The web, put together with love and creativity for people to help each other, always needs people.

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