Americans across the country now know about a soup kitchen serving thousands of hungry people in Youngstown, Ohio.
Unfortunately, most learned about it because of a publicity stunt by Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan. The backlash from the Ryan Budget Traveling Roadshow could threaten future funding for the program.
Last weekend, Ryan and his family were on their way to the airport when he decided to barge into a dining hall run by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. The patrons already had eaten and departed. The volunteers had cleared the hall and cleaned most of the dishes.
Nevertheless, Ryan, his wife and three young children donned aprons. Moments later, photographers and television cameras captured Ryan standing at the sink, his head bent low as he scrubbed a pot.
When the charity’s president, Brian J. Antal, found out about Ryan’s stunt, he was furious. Ryan and his campaign had “ramrodded” their way into the kitchen, Antal told The Washington Post on Monday.
“We’re a faith-based organization,” he said. “We are apolitical because the majority of our funding is from private donations. It’s strictly in our bylaws not to do it. They showed up there, and they did not have permission. They got one of the volunteers to open up the doors. ... The photo op they did wasn’t even accurate. He did nothing. He just came in here to get his picture taken at the dining hall.”
Public reaction was ferocious, and much of it has targeted Antal.
When I talked to Antal on Tuesday afternoon, he said he was starting to worry “a little bit” for the safety of his family. A young child wailed in the background as he described the barrage of angry calls he’d been fielding since the story broke.
“They keep accusing me of being partisan,” he said. “They say they’re donors who will never give again because of what I said.”
None of them would give a name.
Juanita Sherba, St. Vincent’s Saturday coordinator for the dining hall, told The Youngstown Vindicator’s David Skolnick that she had given the Ryan campaign prior approval but later regretted her decision to allow what was clearly “a photo op.”
“It was the phoniest piece of baloney I’ve ever been associated with,” she told The Vindicator. “In hindsight, I would have never let him in the door. ... They couldn’t have cared less. The advance man said Paul Ryan wanted to come and talk to our clientele, but he didn’t.”
Pundits and reporters are having a field day with this, of course. One reporter called it “Brillo Gate.” Another pointed out Antal has voted in Democratic primaries – in the Democratic stronghold of Youngstown, you understand, where local Republican candidates are as common as palm trees.
Lost in this revelry are some hard facts facing Youngstown every day.
Between October 2011 and September 2012, St. Vincent’s served more than 98,000 meals. Antal says the need continues to grow.
“They come from all walks of life,” he said. “Homeless people, of course, [Youngstown State University] students, people who just can’t make ends meet.”
The largest growing population in need?
“The working poor,” Antal said. “We see a lot of families these days, a lot of children.”
Every weekday, the kitchen serves lunch to 200 to 250 people. Volunteers also pack 150 to 160 bag lunches “to give them something to get them through the night.” For the past few years, the organization also has provided snacks for about 180 students in Youngstown city schools.
It is in the middle of a capital campaign to pay for needed upgrades to the kitchen. Antal is heading up that effort, too.
“This is a charity, but we have to run it like a business,” Antal said. “Between the food pantry and the soup kitchen, we need a budget of a quarter-million dollars. My job is fundraising.”
His “job” with the organization, by the way, is voluntary. For his countless hours of work on behalf of Youngstown’s hungry, he receives not one dime. His other full-time job, the one that supports his family, is in sales.
“I’ve volunteered for five years,” Antal said. “I won’t quit.”
“My objection to Paul Ryan’s visit has nothing to do with his being a Republican. I’m trying to protect our charity. I’ve been flooded with angry calls, but I’ve also heard from people as far away as Montana and California offering to help. That gives me hope.”
Those interested in helping can send a check to: Society of St. Vincent de Paul, P.O. Box 224, Youngstown, OH 44501.
I leave you with this exchange between an angry caller and Antal:
“Do you realize,” she said, “there’s a war between Republicans and Democrats?”
“Ma’am,” he said, “the only war I’m involved in is the war against hunger.”
The phone went dead.
• Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.