Nourishing souls in Port HuronQ&A with Sarah Jones: Nonprofit Journal Project

Sarah Jones is the new executive director of Mid City Nutrition Program, a soup kitchen in Port Huron.

You were in the library system for 18 years. How did you end up at Mid City Nutrition?

I didn't want to work in libraries anymore. Had burned out a little bit, and the pandemic made things really different. It wasn't the job that I loved before anymore.

We discovered my husband was never going to have to go back into the office. He works from home as a computer programmer. We bought this farm out here. I started looking around for where my skills could be best used. I was almost accidental. I saw this one and just knew. When I met with the board, that cemented it for me. They were so wonderful. The interview was conversational. Their questions were good. I felt confident that I would be a good person to help them transition to the new building, to do some kind of technology updates.

In libraries, we meet a lot of people whose needs we just can't meet. Being able to do this kind of direct aid is something that I love and that I've wanted to be able to do for a long time. There's nothing more satisfying than actually giving meals to hungry people. It's about the best job in the whole world.

I'm curious what you've learned about food insecurity that maybe you weren't aware of before.

The one thing that I knew, but when you see it, it's a different kind of knowing, is that the people in our line don't necessarily look like what you would imagine.

There's all kinds of people and some people in our line look sort of traditionally homeless. But we also have a lot of seniors, people who are mentally ill, people who are just having a rough time right now. A lot of the people in our line look like me, look like my friends who have just hit a hard time. It's been a little eye-opening how great the need is and how much it's spreading as food prices go up. People who have been able to make it okay are starting to not be able to make it anymore We're getting more calls, more people coming in.

What is a typical day like? How does it work?

We roll in pretty early in the morning and start cooking. We plan in advance a little bit because we have to thaw food. But our meals really depend on what has come in over the past couple of days. So the plan can change on a dime depending on what we have and what needs to be used first.

For example, we got a bunch of leafy greens the other day. We don't usually see such quantities of kale and romaine, and we were so excited about having it. We had to hurry up and use that because it doesn't last forever. So we had to make some quick changes to the menu.

Then volunteers show up, make salads, cut desserts, prep things. It's a hubbub of activity.

A pickup van goes out around 8:00, 8:30 in the morning and picks up from our corporate donors, the grocery stores and stuff. When the van arrives,  we unload it and sort, inspect and weigh everything.

Then we serve from 11:00 to 12:00. It's all takeout, so it gets packaged up first and then served out the front door. After that, it's cleanup and dishes and a little bit of a lull. Then the afternoon shift starts and we start all over.

The big meal of the day is the lunch. In the evening, from 4:00 to 5:00, it's always soup and sandwich.

Beyond feeding people, which is obviously very important, what do you see as Mid City Nutrition's broader role in the community?

Serving food is the big one. Through COVID we've been carry-out only. But when we are in our new building, we're hoping to be able to spend more time with people again. It's a bigger dining room in the new space. Right now we're in a church basement that is very crowded.

I can't even picture how they sat people down here to eat before. We'll be able to bring back that social need that we fill in the new space. Now we chat with everyone at the doors. We're handing out the carry out. The two people who handle most of the handing out know everyone in line. So everyone gets a little bit of conversation.

But a lot of the people who are coming here definitely crave more. We look forward to being able to sit down and eat together again. For some people we might be the only person they talk to all day. We want to be able to sit down and break bread again and have a longer conversation, hang out a little bit. Everybody here misses that and really looks forward to that coming back.

Our van says, "Fill a stomach, feed a soul.” We want that too. Not necessarily in a religious way, we just want people to feel good and respected and important.

Now that you've been at Mid-City for two months, what do you see as the soup kitchen's greatest assets and greatest challenges?

The staff is our greatest asset. I cannot say enough about them. Most of the people who are here have been here for quite some time. A lot of them started as volunteers. One of our chefs, actually, his dad was a volunteer here and when he retired from volunteering, he told his son, "Okay, you're taking my place now." He's now our head cook, Chef Paul.

We have a lot of people who are very, very dedicated. I can't keep them out of here. Everybody comes in and volunteers on their days off. They'll do anything to help the soup kitchen. The dedication down here is just absolutely amazing.

The volunteers, as well. We have some volunteers who work six days a week here who come in and help prep food and serve. They're so dedicated to something they're not even being paid for. I'm blown away.

Our greatest challenge is finding more people to serve. Finding the loopholes in who can't get to us and what barriers are causing that. We don't see a lot of families, which if that's because there's no need in the community, fantastic. But that doesn't seem possible.

When I'm thinking about new ideas, I'm thinking about ways to expand, maybe make things a little bit easier. Can we package things in such a way where people can pick up a couple of take-and-make meals? They can just take something home and reheat it – a pan of lasagna, something more family style? Would that help? Would serving a little bit later help? I have a lot to learn from the community and a lot of questions to ask. I want to make sure that anyone who needs us can get what they need.

This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change, and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.