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DeKalb's Feed'em Soup grows to meet challenges

DeKALB — Joshua Gade only had 53 cents to his name, but he was willing to donate it to the one restaurant in DeKalb that fed him for free. 

Gade, 31, of DeKalb, gave his change to Feed'em Soup, a nonprofit organization that provides free restaurant-style food service. Gade said the 53 cents was all he had left for the month, but said it was worth giving to an organization that helped him fulfill his needs. 

"Without no food, I have no energy to look for work," Gade said. "So I figured, hey, might as well help with expenses." 

Gade is one of many customers who value the excellent food service and friendly staff at Feed'em Soup. Located at 122 S. First St., the nonprofit organization was founded in 2010 with the goal of alleviating hunger in the community. In past years, Feed'em Soup provided free meals twice a month, but this year decided to serve meals weekly. 

Gade found out about Feed'em Soup when he was homeless and couldn't find an available room at Hope Haven in DeKalb. Even after finding work and sharing an apartment with two other roommates, he still goes to their meal service every Wednesday. 

"Outside it looks like a little dive kitchen," Gade said. "Once you walk in, you feel like you're walking into a four-star restaurant." 

While Feed'em Soup has sustained its operations and increased meal services, they face several challenges this year. Initially, Feed'em Soup shared rent and space with the Church of DeKalb. They paid a quarter of the $3,200 monthly rent. Now they are paying the full rent after the church moved to 425 Fisk Ave. in April.  

Feed'em Soup has a budget of about $140,000 this year. About $20,000 comes from grants, almost $30,000 comes from donations and $90,000 comes from fundraisers and sponsorships, he said. Cuts have been made to their budget to preserve their dinner services, he said. For example, a shuttle service that transported food and people now only transports food, he said. 

The church's move has been a blessing and a curse, he said. Although overhead costs increased significantly, "it's allowed us to redecorate and make the space our own and grow as an organization," Gibbs said. 

Another challenge the organization faces is adding another meal service either by the end of the year or early in 2014. Their goal for the years ahead is to increase service to five meals a week, Gibbs said. 

While Feed'em Soup has supported itself through fundraisers and partnerships with local businesses, nonprofit organizations and churches, they are still looking for more people who can make any donation they can to attend their meal services.

"There are plenty of people out there who still haven't heard of us," Gibbs said. "And really, our goal is to break down that stigma of a soup kitchen." 

Feed'em Soup continues to support itself in other ways, such as renting space for functions such as dance classes and birthday parties. They also plan to allow educational programs to rent space in their building as well. 

Even though Feed'em Soup is struggling with covering the cost of rent and utilities, it has never had trouble finding volunteers. Every year Feed'em Soup welcomes about 500 volunteers and they are booked several months in advance for work, Gibbs said. The volunteers range in age from young adults to senior citizens.

"Our volunteer base is huge," Gibbs said. "It's almost immeasurable." 

Feed'em Soup plans on running more fundraisers, joint fundraisers and dinners in the future. Their next dinner is set for Saturday, July 13 at 6:30 p.m. They also plan on revamping their Lexi's Kids Corner program to teach children healthy eating. 

"It's going to lower obesity rates and make them happier and healthier people as adults," Gibbs said. "And that is how I think we can impact things long term." 

Keyon Johnson, a DeKalb Huntley Middle School student, and his grandmother Sylvia Upperdite have eaten at Feed'em Soup for four years. The one thing that keeps them coming back is the atmosphere. The staff always has a smile on their face and their service makes them feel special. They are treated like paying customers even though they are not, Upperdite said. 

"Some people will be on their last dime," Johnson said. "When they come in here, they are loved and they feel like coming back."

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