Dinner Service

J ust north of the city green, on Temple Street, the Center Church Parish House is a handsome two-story brick building, with chalk-white detailing and an imposing air.

But it’s actually quite welcoming. In its brightly colored basement—aqua walls and tangerine chairs—people come together most nights to break bread, sip soup and catch up.

This is the primary home of the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen (DESK), a nightly social service offering a free dinner to New Haveners who need it. DESK has been operating for almost 30 years, according to the newly minted executive director, Steve Werlin, who was previously an administrator at Columbus House, a local shelter and support organization that serves the homeless.

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The night of my visit, Meagan Lamberti, who plans and cooks the meals, is overseeing her fleet of volunteers as they prepare to serve fried rice, teriyaki beef, salad, bread, oranges and—to the cheers of diners—a rare double dessert. “It’s like Chopped every night,” Lamberti says, referring to the TV show where cooks have to assemble meals from strange ingredients under intense time pressure.

The soup kitchen was founded in 1987 by a group of local churches in a city that’d been recently upturned by “the closure of mental health facilities throughout the state… and the crack epidemic,” Werlin says. At first, the dinners rotated from one church to another. Now the neighboring parish houses of Center and United Churches split hosting duties, with Center taking the lion’s share.

Werlin says the population of diners swells in summer, when people are less likely to be in shelters, and at the end of the month, when benefit programs may have run out. On a wintry night at the beginning of the month, there might be 30 people at DESK. But some evenings there are over 200. Since the soup kitchen is centrally located, many people take the bus in from suburbs or walk in for a square meal. There are nursing students present to diagnose and treat any health issues, and Lamberti aims for wholesome meals at each dinner.

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Using ingredients from the Connecticut Food Bank as well as leftovers from Yale’s dining services, Lamberti says the menus always include tossed salad and bread in addition to a main course. She’s committed to using as little canned food as possible, in a departure from the soup kitchen’s early days.

But it’s not just about “hunger or even malnutrition,” Werlin says. It’s also about “lifting a burden off people’s finances. People who are experiencing homelessness or poverty have a very limited budget and they’re forced to make difficult decisions about what they spend their money on. Everybody has basic expenses for life… and when people are forced to make choices, then something gets left out. Here, we can take one of those decisions off the table.”

In addition to filling stomachs, Werlin is interested in moving the soup kitchen up Maslow’s hierarchy to address social needs, too. He wants DESK to be “a place not where [people] have to come, but where they want to come.” Werlin envisions a “fully integrated” community between servers and served. He wants volunteers to come to DESK “not because they enjoy serving, but because they want to see their friends.” Werlin calls it “creating equity” and concedes it’s a particularly thorny challenge to get people to focus on the common instead of the different. “It’s the hardest part,” he says. “That’s the world we live in.”

For Lamberti, who’s been working at DESK for seven years, these distinctions have broken down. “The best part of this job is I literally meet people from every walk of life,” she says. “I have lawyers who come and wash dishes for me. High school students come in and serve. Our population is not all homeless. Some people are retired, some people are addicts. Working-class in America is working-poor. If I didn’t have access to the food that I make here, my family probably wouldn’t eat either.”

At 5:45, that night’s food is hot and ready to serve, as the volunteers are poised with their serving spoons. Lamberti announces the menu to the waiting people, then asks a man in line for the meal—a friend of hers whom she ribbingly calls “Father,” although he’s retired law enforcement—to say a brief blessing.

He does, and dinner is served.

Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen
Sun-Thurs 5:30pm at 311 Temple St, New Haven (map)
Fri 6pm, Sat 5pm at 323 Temple St, New Haven (map)
(203) 624-6426 | [email protected]

Written and photographed by Sorrel Westbrook.

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Sorrel is a California transplant to New Haven. She studied English at Harvard and fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She spends her free time among her house rabbits and houseplants, looking at maps of Death Valley. She loves New England for its red brick and rainstorms and will travel great distances in pursuit of lighthouses and loud music.

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