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Hull House

Gatherings at Chicago's Jane Addams Hull House attempt to reinvent the soup kitchen.

Re-thinking Soup for the Soul

BY Natasha Eziquiel-Shriro

Re-thinking Soup, a project of Chicago’s Jane Addams Hull House Museum, serves up bowls of soup to bring together food activists, policy-makers and the hungry.

Beginning in May, every Tuesday organizers have served free lunch – healthy soup and organic bread – inside the historic Hull House Residents’ Dining Hall on the city’s near southwest side. (The hall is where author Upton Sinclair sat each night to write The Jungle.)

Hull House executive chef Sam Kass and fellow chef Yoni Levy cook in two large kettles, which serve approximately 250 bowls. So far, the event has averaged about 150 attendees per gathering.

“It’s not just about getting tons of calories,” says Kass, a chef of more than 10 years, “but what kind of calories. Is it healthy? Where does it come from? What is the produce being used?”

Since 2005, more than 35 supermarkets have abandoned poor communities on Chicago’s south and west sides, leaving an estimated half million people without access to affordable, nutritious food.

Hull House Museum Executive Director Lisa Lee says that Re-thinking Soup aims to bring together the community – from the hungry to the mayor’s office – for a discussion on food policy.

Each lunch features a speaker from groups like the Illinois Task Force on Local and Organic Food and Farms, the Organic School Project, or a chef committed to utilizing sustainable food systems.

Upcoming topics include immigration, biofuels, GMOs and alternatives to fast food. And a monthly “Soup Soapbox” gives attendees the mic – allowing young adults and seasoned activists the opportunity to share stories, poetry and calls to action.

“Even if the soup isn’t entirely organic,” says Lee, “we want the conversation to be.”

In 1889, when the Hull House opened in Chicago’s 19th ward – currently the site of the University of Illinois at Chicago campus – more than 20 different immigrant populations called the community home. Many of them were destitute.

Addams and her contemporaries ignited a social movement that used the domestic sphere to build community. Hull House initially provided only basics needs, then expanded into a 13-branch settlement that included a school, art gallery, clubs, theater, nursery, gym and several coffee houses.

The Residents’ Dining Hall served low cost meals, drawing in activists alongside those in dire need. It quickly grew into an organizing center that helped lead national movements against child labor, as well as for juvenile justice, women’s suffrage and fair immigration policies. In addition to Sinclair, the Hall hosted people such as journalist Ida B. Wells, socialist leader Eugene Debs, civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois and writer Gertrude Stein.

“A lot of brilliant minds of that generation took their knowledge and channeled it through the kitchen,” says Lee, speaking of the first generation of American women to attend college. “They talked about how they could transform food culture … and how food might be a way of bringing communities that surrounded this neighborhood together in creating new kinds of publics.”

Kass and Lee say it’s again time to shift the soup kitchen from a direct-service site to one that stirs up a vision for the future.

“For the breadth of human history, the poor have always been the face of starvation,” says Kass, who says his profession must take the lead in tackling public health issues. “In contemporary America, not only is there an unconscionable amount of people [who] remain hungry, there’s even a larger population, mostly poor, who are faced with obesity, diabetes and various other problems from overabundance.”

Hull House provides free soup, but that is only the beginning. Lee says, “What we’re asking people to do is build a new community and become stakeholders in how we can achieve dramatic change.”

Natasha Eziquiel-Sriro is an In These Times editorial intern.

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