Guest Commentary

Free Hot Soup KC hits the streets to do the right thing

Nellie McCool, founder and administrator of Free Hot Soup KC
Nellie McCool, founder and administrator of Free Hot Soup KC

When the boy in the cafeteria sat distraught and alone, you sat with him. You gave him part of your lunch. When a car pulled over to the side of the road, you asked if the driver needed help. You had all the right tools to assist. In a new city your feet led you to the bench at a public park, and your children played with another’s children. You arranged a date to meet again. You sound like a Souper.

Free Hot Soup KC is a Facebook group. We have no income or funding, no tax deductions, no facilities. Our members, or Soupers as we like to call ourselves, have the same quirky hobby: We enjoy sharing what we have in abundance, specifically with those who are lacking. We send you home with leftovers after the holiday. We shoot you encouraging messages during poor health. We bring fresh-baked brownies to your loved one’s wake.

Most Soupers don’t want to be paid or otherwise compensated for what they share. It’s simply what we love to do, when we can, for those we care for. You may already be akin to a Souper whether or not you are in our group.

But the Kansas City Health Department has a problem with that. Earlier this month, inspectors shut down our free meals and destroyed our food with bleach, calling it a threat to public safety.

Who knew hosting a picnic in the ‘hood would be such an outlandish idea? Acquaintances ask if I feel scared when I take my family to the park at 11th Street and Prospect Avenue. Nestled in our inner parts are some of the most violent and impoverished neighborhoods in the country.

If there is one thing I’ve learned since beginning the group in 2015, it’s that I can tame a knife fight with the right group of people and a cup of hot soup. For this reason, my reputation as a Souper precedes me through every dark alley in town, and I am privileged for it.

Why do people ask if I’m scared? People live here. Ask them.

Humans are humans, and the homeless are no exception. You will trust some of the people you meet on the street, and some you won’t. Free Hot Soup encourages you to honor this as a reflection of good instincts.

No one forces your steps along the trail in the snow to the tent you see along the highway. But if you proceed, the guidelines of our Facebook community simply suggest traveling in a mixed-gender group of three or more.

Are you required a permit to knock on your neighbor’s door and exchange your favorite casserole? What if your neighbor has no door? What if your neighbor has no roof over their head, nor a way to ask for help?

Free Hot Soup is not a single entity, and we don’t try to be. We are a diverse community of many different faiths, ages, professions, classes and colors. Many of our activities do not revolve around food, although meals are a core part of human existence. If sharing a meal is wrong, we don’t want to be right.

We do not exist to replace service organizations. Do cultural problems such as violent crime and addiction not call for solutions on a more intimate level, as well as on a societal one? Why not hold us each accountable for the suffering we are witness to? We know which neighborhoods are hurting. The statistics are all there. If you want to help, why wait for someone else to grant permission? Do institutions have a monopoly on being decent a person?

Free Hot Soup picnics are private, regardless of the fact that our hosts are an exceptionally hospitable breed. We’re known to invite our neighbors at our own homeowners association meetings, as well as our neighbors camping under the bridge. Sharing meals is our method of communicating trust, compassion and support. It’s effective.

If being too friendly is a crime, lock us away for good. Our food is good enough for us and our children, and it’s good enough for our friends. We refuse to see our friends as anything less than yours, with minds any less capable of making food choices than yours.

The Health Department enforcing its oversight on our meals, on the condition that we are too friendly with those experiencing food insecurity, is a violation of our constitutional rights. Pursuing enforcement of commercial food codes is an infringement on our freedoms of expression, association and assembly.

Furthermore, they are obstructing the divine path of my Aunt Andi’s legendary macaroons.

Nellie McCool of Merriam is creator and administrator of the Facebook group Free Hot Soup KC.