Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Hungry for Food or Hungry for Love? Learning from a Belgian Soup Kitchen

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Hungry for Food or Hungry for Love? Learning from a Belgian Soup Kitchen

Article excerpt

QUENTIN T. WODON [*]

ABSTRACT. Despite recent progress in reducing poverty, the fight against hunger remains a challenge in the United States. Charities have set up soup kitchens in order to reach out to the poor and hungry. Unfortunately, the way in which some soup kitchens are run is not appealing. One may wonder if waiting in line for a bowl of soup provided Out of a van contributes to self-esteem. Beyond hunger, the poor suffer from isolation and a lack of respect from society. It may be worth looking at the experience of other countries that provide hunger relief in a more humane manner. In this paper, we analyze the experience of a soup kitchen in Namur, Belgium, whose cozy atmosphere has led its customers to come as much for socialization as for food.

I

Introduction

DESPITE RECENT PROGRESS in reducing poverty and welfare caseloads, the fight against hunger remains a challenge in the United States. Several facts reported by Deborah Leff of Second Harvest, the largest food bank network in the country, in a March 1999 testimony before the Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, FDA, and Related Agencies (Committee on Appropriations, United States House of Representatives) highlight the extent of hunger in the country. [1] In December 1997, Catholic Charities USA reported that the number of people receiving food assistance through their programs grew in 1996 by 0.7 million, to 5.7 million. In its Annual Survey of Hunger and Homelessness, the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that emergency food assistance was up 14 percent in 1998. Second Harvest itself estimates that in 1997, 16 percent of requests for food aid went unmet.

Beyond hunger, the poor--at least some of them--suffer from isolation and a lack of respect from society. While many charities involved in the fight against hunger do a good job of reaching out to the hungry, the way in which this is done is not always appealing. When thinking of a soup kitchen, one of the images that comes to mind is that of those cafeterias in which hundreds of individuals eat their meals in a fast-food atmosphere. Another image is that of long lines of individuals waiting for food served out of a van, in the cold, in some downtown park. In these cases, one may wonder if food relief does not contribute to low self-esteeem. There are of course many cases where the environment is better in which the food is distributed to the needy. Still, it may be worth looking at the experience of other countries in providing a more humane way of hunger relief.

In this paper, we analyze the experience of a soup kitchen or social restaurant in Namur, Belgium. The main activity of the restaurant, the so-called "Solidarity House," is to provide about sixty meals at lunchtime every weekday at a price of sixty Belgian francs (slightly less than U.S. $2) per meal. Besides cheap meals (which are not provided free, in order to respect the dignity of the customers and to not foster a culture of dependency among them), the restaurant offers other services including administrative and legal assistance, a library, learning assistance for children, access to a social worker, and low income housing for university students in rupture with their family. In this paper we focus on the restaurant activity and on its customers' motivation for coming.

The paper is structured as follows. In section two, we provide some background on the extent of the payment difficulties for food among poor households living in Wallony, the southern part of Belgium, where the regional capital of Namur is located. The third section assesses whether the restaurant does reach the poor, those who are more likely to have payment difficulties for their food. More generally, that section compares the socio-economic characteristics of the soup kitchen program beneficiaries with the characteristics of adults belonging to three different sets of households: the Walloon poor, those among the Walloon poor who have difficulties in paying for their food, and finally the population of Wallony as a whole. …

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