No requirements. No charge. Just come and eat: Dilworth Soup Kitchen

“I have a job,” said the young man through tears. “I shouldn’t have to eat at a place like this.”

Much has been said and written about the loss of a living wage in America, which keeps people from becoming self-sufficient. This man was one who came to eat at First Christian Church’s Dilworth Soup Kitchen in Charlotte, located at Dilworth and East Boulevard in a swanky older neighborhood blocks from the Panthers’ stadium and the Hornets’ arena.

The National Low-Income Housing Coalition reports that there is NO state in the US where a 40-hour minimum-wage workweek enables one to afford a 2-bedroom apartment. People often have to choose between paying for food and paying for housing, or paying for heat, or paying for health care or medicine.

This man was gainfully employed, yet couldn’t make ends meet.

Food insecurity is especially great in North Carolina. Between 2010 and 2016, NC has regularly ranked among the top ten states with the highest percentage of people who experience food shortages: over 1.7 million, nearly 1 in 6. One in four children in NC (24.8%) is food-insecure.

Rev. Jolin Wilks-McElroy was standing in the side doorway of the church one afternoon in 2008. A neighbor jogging by stopped and said, “Are you the pastor?” She said yes. And he replied, “I’ve always thought this church would be a great place for a soup kitchen.”

Jolin, who’s been at the Disciples of Christ congregation since 2000, admits it sounds hokey, too much like “a God thing” to be believed, but that’s how it started. The route to full support from the neighborhood was twisty, turny, and tenouous at times, but Dilworth opened on Christmas Eve that year, serving its first meal to five guests, as the worst of the Great Recession rolled in. Now it serves around 200 every Monday, and has spawned a network of four different kitchens, all modeled on the way customers are served in a restaurant.

I drove down on Oct. 31st and volunteered from 10:30 till 1:00, bringing hot gumbo and rice, cornbread, and mixed green salad on real china plates to my guests at Table #2. My Table #1 counterpart was a man in his early 60s retired from the tech industry who’d moved down here from New York; Table #3 was served by two middle-schoolers off for the Halloween holiday.

One in eight people in the US are classified as “food-insecure,” defined by the USDA as lacking reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. Many of them scrape by on one meal a day. From its inception, Pastor Jolin and Dilworth organizers felt strongly that this meal should be served with a smile, a friendly greeting, and made with fresh ingredients cooked that day—AND that no guest should ever have to fill out paperwork, prove income guidelines, or otherwise prove they qualified.

As a result, the place has the aura of a family gathering and a church: A prayer circle with the volunteers before the doors open, complete with community announcements, birthday celebrations, and much laughter, smiles, storytelling during the two seatings, with some lingering at tables over coffee afterwards. All of them taking a respite from the struggles of the day before heading back out into it all.

86% of NC households receiving food assistance do not know where their next meal is coming from.

Thank God that meal might be coming from a soup kitchen like Dilworth.


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