Combating Hunger: Volunteering at Xavier Mission by Finn H. (10th grade)
In New York City, roughly 1.2 million people have food instability—a need, at least several times each year, for free food. It is a problem that should not go ignored, and one that is only getting worse. A survey from Hunger Free America found that “New York City’s food pantries and soup kitchens faced an increased demand of nine percent in 2016, on top of an increased demand of five percent in 2015, seven percent in 2014, 10 percent in 2013…” Clearly, hunger is a big issue. But not one that can never be conquered. Within the huge, frightening scope of food insecurity in NYC, there are small and simple solutions that anyone, Saint Ann’s students included, can be a part of. Take just one: Xavier Mission, located in Lower Manhattan.
Everyone has a place during Xavier Mission’s preparations for their “Welcome Table,” a Sunday service of 1,400-1,900 hot meals served to those in need. Chefs frequent the small kitchen, sweating but focused. Some volunteers scrub tables and stack chairs, while others fold, sort and store donated clothes. All this occurs in a high school cafeteria—-a huge greenish space with high ceilings and cylindrical pillars placed evenly throughout. About 300 people can be seated at a time.
Welcome Table is the largest regular Sunday lunch in New York City. The program has been run by the same foundation for 34 years. More impressively, the foundation currently employs just four people. That volunteers run Xavier Mission from the ground up was one of the first things director, coordinator, and fellow volunteer Andy told me. He talked me through a regular Sunday at the Welcome Table.
The shows starts before seven when head chef Beverly Torres, one of the four paid employees, and her group of volunteers come. At 8:30 is the arrival of the ‘Meal Prep’ volunteers. Some come from school, but most come from the New York Cares organization, pushed from their beds by free coffee and the feeling of contribution. Understaffed might be an inappropriate way to describe Xavier Mission, but it is not exactly hard finding things to do. As soon as I arrived Andy placed me in front of another volunteer setting up black plastic chairs at the tables, and work began. After the chairs, I transitioned to cutting bread and bagging pastries for Xavier’s walk-in lunches. Andy informed me that, on top of Sunday’s lunch, “during-the- week meals are available for those who need food,” and that the recipients just ask at reception and are given what they need.
I was surprised, talking to volunteers, just how much people like to help. The regular volunteer at the Welcome Table does much more than come once a week. I asked a few people at my lunch-preparation table why they choose to volunteer. One woman told me, simply, “I feel useful.”
While I washed plastic containers, surrounded by the quickly heightening commotion, another group of volunteers arrived. These were ‘ambassadors,’ who greet the patrons at the door and guide them to their tables. Andy told me the sad social truth of the homeless today, that “for many of our guests… this is the only civil conversation they may have during the week.” At the Welcome Table Xavier’s aim is to make their guests feel just that—welcome. According to their website, in addition to providing a hot meal, they have specialists that come in to aid their guests with “obtaining government benefits, free chiropractic treatments, legal referrals, and voter registration drives.”
What comes next is “Meal Service,” a frenzy of soap, food, and trays. Additionally, a Duane-Reade-run medical station is set up for free flu shots and blood pressure screenings. The guests are welcomed in, and Welcome Table begins. It is cyclical. There is a pattern, a rhythm, to everything you do during the flurry of lunchtime.
After four hours, the guests are full and have filed out; Meal Service leaves and a final volunteer group cleans up the room and the kitchen, marking the end of the day for Xavier. A little under 2,000 people will have been served.
A law in New York, the Callahan Consent Decree, guarantees a right to a shelter for all homeless living in NYC. This kind of law is almost unique to big cities in the states, and because of it New York is forced to spend about 400,000 dollars every day on hotel rooms for the homeless. It’s a huge amount of money, and the amount is increasing every year. We know that Xavier serves 1,400-1.900 today, but what Cindy, another director/coordinator, told me, was that the number was 700 only ten years ago. The systemic problem of homelessness, Andy says, comes from three things. Expensive housing, mental illness, and synthetic drugs such as K2. Volunteers can’t exactly help cure any of that, and Andy was quick to admit it. “None of these programs solve hunger,” he said. “They help solve for people that are hungry… you are going to be able to provide services for that community, provide food for that community.”
This is why Xavier Mission is worth it. Wake up early on Sunday and help prepare food, or come later and serve it. If your Sundays are busy, make time for one of their other programs. Fold clothes or help run a makeshift grocery store. Even donate. Donations ensure Xavier will always have what it needs to function. Their website is xaviermission.org.