The Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen at lunch time; volunteers Natalie Keyssar for The Wall Street Journal
New York City’s soup kitchens provide an indispensable service to those in need. But how does the food taste?
That was one of my questions when I was invited to lunch last week at the Church of the Holy Apostles.
On Ninth Avenue and 28th Street, the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen is one of the city’s busiest—serving from 800 to 1,200 meals every weekday, Monday through Friday.
“This was a temporary solution to a temporary problem,” the Rev. Glenn Chalmers told me as he surveyed hundreds seated in the church’s sanctuary, with cafeteria trays in front of them. “When we started in the 1980s we never thought we’d be here for 32 years.”
Feeding those in need became so central to Holy Apostles’s mission that when a fire ravaged the building in 1990, parishioners had the church rebuilt without fixed pews so that it could be turned into a giant dining room.
The sensation that greets you when you arrive these days isn’t of sadness or despair, but of grace and beauty. Calm reigns as midday sun pours through the stained glass windows.
“We have volunteers come in and play the piano,” Father Chalmers said, as he pointed to a stage near the church’s majestic organ. “On the Fourth of July we put flags in the ice cream. There’s a sense of dignity, too.”
Providing food—with the occasional musical accompaniment—is only part of Holy Apostles’s work.
Volunteers serve lunch in the soup kitchen. Natalie Keyssar for The Wall Street Journal
The Episcopal parish also supplies identification cards to those without.
“People in the street will lose things,” explained Yvonne Cassidy, the soup kitchen’s director of development and an Irish novelist. “To get any ID you need ID. Sometimes that’s enough. It’s very popular.”
And there are yoga and meditation classes and a writing workshop created in 1995 by New Yorker writer Ian Frazier.
George Cousins, who was sitting on a bench in the back of the church after finishing lunch, attends the writing workshop every Thursday from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. He also contributes to the workshop’s blog.
Mr. Cousins pulled out some of his work. One story was about a pedestrian who disdained him when he was working in lower Manhattan, handing out fliers for a company that sold suits.
A couple of years later, Mr. Cousins spotted the same person, who he learned had lost his job in some business scandal, in Grand Central Terminal—picking through a garbage can.
“At first, I thought he was searching for a newspaper,” Mr. Cousins wrote, “but no, he was going through discarded bags for food. Since then, a couple of times I have seen him on line at St. Francis and here at Holy Apostles, wearing dark glasses and a baseball cap.”
Mr. Cousins testified to the excellence of the food, which I had yet to taste, and the talent of Carlton Nesbit, Holy Apostles’s chef.
The only meals that get mixed reviews, Ms. Cassidy said, are the vegetarian ones.
“A lot of our guests were complaining,” she admitted. “We used to serve hot dogs.”
On the day of my visit, the menu included chicken fajitas, creamed corn, a bean-and-tomato salad, and a pear for dessert.
Indeed, Mr. Cousins had brought a container to take food to go. Guests are allowed to return for seconds but are asked to wait until after 12 p.m. so everybody has had a chance to be served.
“Chicken, chicken, chicken,” Mr. Cousins said, citing his favorite menu. “You always know what day they’re going to be serving chicken.”
Lexx Paredes, another guest, has been visiting Holy Apostles for four years. He used to be a bike messenger and a lot of his former colleagues stop by Holy Apostles.
“You can always tell by the backpacks,” Mr. Paredes said. “Some have a u-lock on their hips.”
The soup kitchen attracts a cross-section—from the chronically homeless, to families moving in and out of poverty, to a gentleman in a three-piece suit who’d been laid off, and a recent NYU grad.
“He was sleeping on a friend’s couch, looking for a job,” Father Chalmers reported. “It’s a real smattering of humanity.”
I asked Mr. Paredes to compare the food at Holy Apostles to the fare at other food kitchens.
“Some do cook different,” he stated diplomatically. “I’m not going to say worse.”
Yvonne Cassidy, the soup kitchen’s director of development. Natalie Keyssar for The Wall Street Journal
I also met Daniel Dawidzionek, a trombone player, and wondered whether he’d ever serenaded his fellow guests over lunch.
“I’ve been asking for these opportunities,” he said; though, “a trombone solo is not going to work in that environment.”
How about with piano accompaniment?
Apparently, Mr. Dawidzionek had already thought of that.
“Pianists would prefer playing on their own,” he explained.
The time had come to try the food. It was excellent: the fajita delicious, the creamed corn and accompanying tomato salad filled with flavor. My only reservations involved the donated bottles of coconut water.
Much of the food comes from City Harvest, including giant loaves of artisanal bread from local bakeries. Canned fruits and vegetables are never used.
And on May 15, Holy Apostles is holding its annual “From Farm to Tray” fundraiser where city chefs will create meals focusing on locally grown ingredients. The soup kitchen costs $2.2 million year to run.
Mr. Paredes appreciates the soup kitchen and so many of the other things that Holy Apostles does—its food and clothing pantries.
“They counsel people with anything they need—child support, welfare,” he said. “They help you get back on your feet. I don’t know what New York City would do without this.”