This article is focused on four soup kitchens in downtown Hamilton. Each is distinct but collectively they share quite a few commonalities. These four are: Living Rock, MAC SOC (Student Outreach Collaborative), Salvation Army Soup Truck, and a joint venture between Love for the Streets and Compassion Ministries.

The Living Rock is one of the few outreach services that focuses on supporting ‘at-risk’ street youth and young adults. MAC SOC is run largely by nursing students who care for the nutritional and physical health of vulnerable populations. Salvation Army Soup Truck is the only soup kitchen in Hamilton that is mobile. Lastly, Love for the Streets and Compassion Ministries aim to feed both body and soul.

All of these groups with the possible exception of the Salvation Army Soup Truck receive many university students. Love for the Streets is comprised entirely of McMaster and University of Guelph students. MAC SOC is largely nursing students from McMaster. And Living Rock is a hodgepodge of students from Redeemer, McMaster, and Mohawk.

If a student gets involved any time between the middle and end of a month when government assistance cheques begin to run out, they will quickly learn that these services can get quite busy. As these services get busier, food portions become smaller and tables fill up. Those involved in the Love for the Streets and the Salvation Army Soup Truck will notice it all the more acutely as people often line up toe-to-heel for a half a block.

Clearly there seems to be a tremendous need for soup kitchens in this downtown neighbourhood. In addition, all four soup kitchens operate on a single night. Therefore, not only is an individual soup kitchen filling up mid-way through the month, but all four are filling up on that same night between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. If the need does not yet sound great, they are all located within a one block radius in downtown Hamilton.

Here is where it gets a little bit more complicated. These four soup kitchens all operate on Wednesday evenings. On Tuesday’s and Thursday’s Living Rock and the Salvation Army Soup Truck are operational, but for the majority of the week it is only the Salvation Army Soup Truck.

What is happening here? Why not evenly space them out over the course of a week? Are we poorly stewarding food, financial, and human resources by operating like this? Could it be that because all four soup kitchens are busy on Wednesday nights there should be four soup kitchens open every night of the week as well? Is there another theory or explanation behind what is happening in this small area?

Many people get involved with soup kitchens to help vulnerable populations but some of these questions ponder whether such help could be more harm than good.

While this may sound like it discourages participation, its goal is quite the opposite. Its goal is to help students participate in the wider discussions surrounding the context of their experience. Through understanding the broader context they may be better equipped to meet the intended goal behind their involvement.

This is reminiscent of the teacher who tries his/her best to develop a strategy for dealing with the child who has difficulty focusing. They utilize every teaching technique they can think of but it still does not solve the problem. Then one day the teacher realizes that the problem has little to do with the classroom but instead a poor breakfast before entering into it. To help the student learn, the teacher was impelled to address a concern outside of the classroom.

Could a similar tale be told of a soup kitchen? What is happening outside of a soup kitchen that can better illuminate what is happening within it? Are there pressing issues which are not being addressed because of a narrow focus on a particular soup kitchen?

These are questions that require conversations. In the words of John Dewey, “Learning is a social activity.” There are many methods by which students can learn but the importance of a conversation cannot be forgotten. Conversations are the means by which students can enter into awareness of the context around them.

Questions fuel conversations. What questions should be asked that will welcome students into a more complete understanding of the broader context around them?
Perhaps in opening up the conversation, we may be able to see more clearly our role within it.

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