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Soup Kitchen on Wheels: Redesigning a NYC Nonprofit's Services


Though New York City is one of the richest cities in the world, food poverty is a very real and current need, especially since Hurricane Sandy. Throughout the five boroughs around 1.4 million people rely on soup kitchens and food pantries every day to feed themselves and their families. The St. John's Bread and Life Soup Kitchen knows this challenge well. Located in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn, St. John’s serves over 2,200 meals every day. But no matter how many meals they serve, their reach can only go so far. It's rare to find many members who travel outside of their own local neighborhood to get the services they need.
To reach more people, St. John's started the Mobile Soup Kitchen (MSK) around 10 years ago. They adapted an existing RV into both a kitchen and office space, enabling it to reach out to families and individuals who do not have easy access to food and social services. The MSK serves up to 300 daily meals, and provides outreach services like voter registration and tax filing, to a number of New York City's most impoverished communities located in East New York, Brownsville, Jackson Heights, Williamsburg and Coney Island.
As a design firm, we at TYTHEdesign strive to provide support and partner with organizations like St. John's. When we first started working with them back in 2009, we weren’t starting from scratch or trying to provide them with new innovative solutions; we looked at ways the lens of design could support and create efficiency within the existing conditions. At the time, the MSK staff and volunteers worked as quickly as possible to serve everyone efficiently, but couldn’t seem to serve fast enough for the waiting community. At times we witnessed the negative emotional effects of backup service, including fights in the line outside and an unhappy staff.


TYTHEdesign worked directly in the small space to document the behavior of the staff and volunteers through observation, volunteering, brainstorming, and creating and testing prototypes. The first system redesign was to organize the storage space within the MSK to be more intuitive, efficient and easy to use for volunteers. We also designed a new serving table and soup trays/cutting boards. By speeding up the serving process, our redesign meant the community spends less time waiting in line, so they enjoy a more respectful experience, minimizing time needed to train volunteers, serve patrons and break up fights means that staff can spend more time administering social services to the community.
Over a year ago TYTHEdesign started consulting with the MSK team on the functionality and interior layout for a new truck. It was important that we took both the positive and negatives from the existing truck, into this new design. For the first time, the MSK team could design their ideal situation and make sure to leave no part of the truck as an afterthought.


After several initial design meetings, and a visit from our California-based fabricator, we started working with the vendor to build out the framework for the overall truck and a rough layout for the space. We started at one end of the space, testing out desk dimensions, electrical placement, cabinet depth, and on and on. It was a very iterative process of evaluating an element, such as a desk, having the tallest and the shortest (that’s me) sit down, make changes, have the cabinetmakers change it, and test again. One of the largest challenges with the space is making sure there was enough space for the serving kitchen but also enough space for the social services offices.
Over the past few months, TYTHEdesign has been working closely with the fabricator to make sure all features are functional, that materials are durable and that the exterior will be graphically beautiful and a good functional communicator for the services provided at St John Bread and Life in the larger NYC community. We are excited to say that the truck is almost ready for the road and should be serving meals this spring.
This month, we're challenging the GOOD community to host a dinner party and cook a meal that contains fewer ingredients than the number of people on the guest list. Throughout March, we'll share ideas and resources for being more conscious about our food and food systems. Join the conversation at and on Twitter at #chewonit.\n

Original images courtesy of TYTHEdesign\n

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