It’s nearly 1:30 p.m. on a recent Monday afternoon and Bashier Spence and Gina Rivers are still stationed outside the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen handing out white plastic bags of today’s hot meal: spaghetti and meatballs and green beans.
Normally scores of clients of all ages and ethnic backgrounds would be inside the boxy structure in this gritty neighborhood to have lunch and take advantage of the opportunity to sit and chat with others — as they had been able to do until this past March.
That’s when the spread of COVID-19 forced the governor to issue the first pandemic-related executive order, closing all dining facilities — and forcing TASK to reorganize in order to get meals to clients.
Now, instead of servers bringing meals to clients at tables, dinner take-out bags are packed inside, carted through a now empty dining room, and lined up on a table where masked servers hand food to the line of masked clients there for a meal.
This particular day is warm, and staff and clients outwardly relish the sun while inwardly thinking of what may lie ahead as winter cold sets in and COVID-19 cases are expected to spike.
But for now, all focus is on today, including the outdoor session with area drummer and keyboardist Earnest Siplin, who is just wrapping up.
“The purpose of the music program is to give an outlet for people who may not have an instrument themselves or to meet other musicians,” says TASK program manager Jaime Parker as she helps Siplin move his drums into the area called the patio — a window-walled structure connected to the main building that provides a view of and the adjacent Capital City Farm.
Parker introduces music program coordinator Caleb Walker, a Trenton music who was a weekly pre-pandemic fixture at Championship Bar and appeared on the “Trenton Analog” compilation of a who’s who in the recent Trenton scene. (U.S. 1, May 20, 2020)
“It’s a benefit to be part of something,” says Parker. “Especially if you’re a drummer by yourself and need other musicians to work with. (The program) provides the ability to meet others.”
In addition to the music, Parker says other days offer other means of connecting with others and oneself.
“Tuesday is visual art,” she says. “Tony Goggles sets the table out, and people are invited to make art.”
Goggles — aka Anthony Catanese — is a Trenton filmmaker whose tongue-in-cheek “Girls Just Want to Have Blood” was screened as part of the 2019 New Jersey Film Festival at Rutgers University under its original name, “Teenage Bloodsuckin’ Bimbos.” (U.S. 1, January 23, 2019)
Other artmaking happens with the longtime TASK project, Trenton A-Team. Founded by former soup kitchen client Shorty Rose, the group of self-trained artists provides a community to share and exhibit in regional and state venues, including the Arts Council of Princeton and Trenton City Museum.
“We don’t have patrons coming into the building for anything. It’s too much than a risk,” Parker says.
Instead Parker and staff are trying to figure out how to keep people meeting, how to provide services in new ways, and how to maintain artmaking while buildings are closed for people who find a need to express themselves and have no place to call a studio of their own.
She is also making it clear that the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen is more than just soup — and more than just Trenton.
“The kitchen is doing more than it has ever done before. Our priority is to feed people. But the less risk we can take is important. It is very important that Mercer County eats.”
But it is also important to help address the underlying causes that create the need for a soup kitchen in the first place.
“Tuesday through Thursday we have on site case managers for people without working phones,” she says, adding that case workers advise patients by giving them cellphones and then communicating with at a distance — including using the glass walls in the patio area.
The case workers then help clients create a foundation for basic services. That includes getting an ID for getting a job, getting an apartment, and building the foundation for stability.
“If you’re living a life with everything in your backpack and you lose it, it is more of a problem than you would think,” says Parker.
In addition to meals, Parker says the other services TASK continues to provide include “hygiene kits. Patrons who are homeless get their mail here. We have books we’re giving away. There is food pantry information. There are socks. And newspapers — patrons would go to the library for news, and when they were closed patrons didn’t know what was happening and asked for papers.
“There are bunch of things that you take for granted, and we don’t realize how important they are until you don’t have access as you usually had.”
That includes access to a computer for work.
Parker cites a specific example. “Amazon wants to hire people and all the hiring is done through Zoom. If you don’t have access to a Zoom meeting you don’t have access for applying for a job.
“So (our job search specialist) helps people remotely. We’re working on a hiring drive — so when we have companies looking to hire we can have a spot for people to help connect to the employer so they could do their job interviews here” — with “here” being the socially distanced patio area.
“The whole world assumes that everyone has a working smart phone. That is not true. When we make every service require something be done on the internet, it shuts a whole world of people out of services.
“The same is true about expectations that people have a car — so there are people who are locked out of services because they don’t have a vehicle. All of our services don’t require a vehicle — we have a walkup option. It’s a major barrier for people who don’t have cars.”
“We expanded a lot,” Parker says about current demand for meals and services. “We have added a couple of schools that we have made into community meal sites. We’ll make extra meals and send them out and distribute them.”
In addition to 15 senior sites in Trenton, daily distribution locations include 14 community meal sites in Trenton, Hightstown, Hamilton, and Princeton. Food is also delivered to HomeFront and 15 sites under the purview of the Trenton Housing Authority.
TASK’s associate director of operations, Paul Jensen, steps in to provide specific numbers. “A week is 8,500 to 9,000 meals,” he says about volume. “We did 36,000 meals for October. August was our top, 41,000.”
“COVID is the number one reason,” he says about the number increase and how it stopped some area senior citizen center services.
“We’ve made a commitment to (Trenton) to provide meals through the winter and see what the need is for the spring,” he says.
But the pain is being felt elsewhere, including Princeton, a place that Parker says “has more low-income people than people think.”
According to Jensen, “Princeton is back up to a 100 meals at the (Methodist) church and the housing authority is up to 60 to 70. They’ve increased their meals steadily, and people know where to come.”
Joyce Campbell, TASK’s executive director, also provides some numbers and sets the current TASK operating budget at $3.8 million —up from last year’s standard $3.3 million to expand on COVID-related items.
That includes increased number of meals, the staffing and overtime to prepare meals, additional kitchen supplies, general supplies — such as hygiene products when donations materials diminish, and keeping the out-front serving staff warm.
While TASK had hoped to slowly introduce indoor seating, Campbell is unsure of when it will be possible. “We’re dealing with a surge, and unless the numbers go down and the transmission rate is lower than one (the Center for Disease Control standard), we won’t have any patrons in our building.
“There has been a real loss of community in our dining room. That’s what is missing for people who don’t have other social contact.”
Another loss is a place for clients to be warm during the winter. “We’re looking at how to keep people warm and partnering with the Rescue Mission to open a warming center,” says Campbell, who had previously racked up 20 years with Catholic Charities in Trenton.
She says the organization’s number one challenge is “preventing any COVID within in my staff. We need to keep the kitchen open and feed people. We’re doing the best we can with it. It’s something I deal with every day, that everyone who is in the building is healthy.
“Another challenge is to supply the services people need within this environment. At the end of the day, our primary mission and goal is that we want to feed people.”
She says the community is also stepping up and that in addition to companies and organizations in the region, 1,500 new individual donors were added recently to their list.
“We’re doing the best we can and trying to expand to areas where people are hungry because they are newly unemployed or under employed,” she says.
They are also following the soup kitchen mission to “feed those who are hungry in the Trenton area and offer programs to encourage self-sufficiency and improve the quality of life.”
The project actively began in 1982 when the late Rev. Alice Parker headed the initiative that prepared and served daily meals at the First United Methodist Church on Broad and Front streets.
In 1991 TASK built a 6,000-square-foot building on city-owned property on Escher Street and continues to rent the site for $1 per year. A 3,300-square-foot expansion was completed in 2019.
Back at the patio, Jaime Parker says she and the staff have “shifted a lot of responsibilities, and the ways we’re doing things are different. We’re not doing too much to grow the staff but looking at what we have and change the jobs to keep the employees and clients safe.
“Nobody really wants (the pandemic). It’s a difficult time, and we’re trying to be creative to provide things people need.”
A native and resident of Bordentown, where her father operates Riverside Studio and her mother is a special education teacher working for the Commission for the Blind, Parker says she got involved with TASK in 2001 when she was a Rider political science student working in the AmeriCorps program. She later earned a master’s degree in public administration from Rutgers University.
Her career started in 2005 when she was asked to take over the grant writing office. She is now the longest tenured person on staff.
Paralleling her interest in politics, Parker also studied theater at Rider and continues her involvement with the arts.
“Music is what I do,” she says, referring to the bands she plays with including Meeko Brando and Alpha Rabbit. The latter’s website describes it as a “Trenton-based band with three different songwriters, three different sounds, and one common goal: to make you dance and move your soul” — the band will be streaming from the House of Robots, the company that produced Analog Trenton — on Saturday, December 5, from 8 to 9:30 p.m.
“Art is very personal,” she says. “There are people who need to make art, and they need to express their creativity, and they can do it many different ways. Some are positive and some art not.”
Applying that philosophy to TASK programs, Parker says, “Being in a band is a sense of belonging, and having a place where you feel you belong is important and that is what we are to a lot of people and that is what makes it hard to not let them in.
“We’re trying to stay in touch and calling (clients) everywhere and trying to get them to join Zoom meetings is a challenge.
“For some folks just being able to talk to people is a lifeline, and being isolated is so harmful to their mental health, and we’re being creative to try to get people to feel that they’re not alone but keeping ourselves safe and not exposing ourselves to harmful conditions.”
As the afternoon winds down and the outdoor table is being taken in, Parker says, “We’re learning a lot about ourselves. We at TASK are asking how we can be better, how we can learn, how we can grow.”
Good questions as the days get darker and colder and people are forced indoors where the virus spreads more easily.
“We’re going into some scary territory,” says Parker.
Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, 72 ½ Escher Street, Trenton. Meals served Monday through Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. 609-695-5456 or www.trentonsoupkitchen.org.
Up for the TASK?
The Trenton Area Soup Kitchen has the following statement regarding helping its mission:
Anytime is a good time for giving, but as the weather turns cold and people continue to suffer the negative economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, community support during the holidays is needed more than ever.
There won’t be a Thanksgiving or Christmas day meal served in the TASK dining room this year, however, the soup kitchen still needs your help in filling food baskets and providing other items for families and individuals.
Demand is greatest this winter for adult clothing. New heavy hooded sweatshirts, hats, gloves, scarves, coats, and full-sized hygiene products can go a long way toward keeping our patrons clean, warm, and dry.
In addition to outerwear, which TASK will collect until the end of February, the soup kitchen will collect food to provide holiday meals for people struggling with hunger and food insecurity.
As the 90 percent jump in food service production over last year at TASK is a clear indicator of the area’s growing demand, it is anticipated that the number of folks in need of food at the holidays will be higher than years past.
For a complete list of needed products, go to www.trentonsoupkitchen.org/ways-to-give.