The phone crackles and cuts out. When Suzy DeYoung calls back, she concedes it’s not the best time to talk. She’s in the back of a van in Raleigh, North Carolina, helping victims of Hurricane Florence in the best way she knows—with a mountain of rescued ingredients.
Suzy is executive director of La Soupe, a multifaceted Cincinnati nonprofit she founded in 2014. Markets, bakeries and farmers give food to La Soupe they otherwise would have discarded. Suzy’s team (and a satellite network of chefs) transforms those contributions into soup to feed food-insecure populations across the city. Some is frozen for sending home in kids’ backpacks. And some is sold in a cafe to help fund programs like cooking classes in urban schools. To date, La Soupe has rescued 639,000 pounds of food and donated 357,000 hearty meals.
Suzy describes all of this as the result of an altruistic midlife crisis. The daughters of a storied Cincinnati chef, Suzy and her sister ran a French cafe in a well-heeled suburb for 25 years. After the recession, though, she felt an impulse to change. “I needed meaning,” Suzy recalls. “I wasn’t passionate about my job anymore. I didn’t get up in the morning and say, ‘How can I make this the best catering event?’ I had to dial back and think what it was that I liked about cooking. And it’s just … I like to feed.”
Suzy DeYoung uses rescued produce to make frugally flavorful soups for her nonprofit cafe. Tuscan Bean Soup one is a great example, flecked with a grab bag of hearty vegetables and humming with garlic and crushed red pepper. See the recipe here.
Meanwhile, in 2013, the National Center for Children in Poverty ranked American cities by childhood poverty rate. Cincinnati landed in fifth place. Suzy says, “I saw the numbers: 40 percent of food wasted and 46 percent of our kids in poverty. If we can reduce waste and get it to the kids in need, we can get those numbers down.”
So she sold her restaurant shares and opened a take-out counter called La Soupe in a more economically diverse area. Her outreach began with collecting unused produce from restaurants to make and donate soup each week. Then one day she read a plea on Facebook. A teacher described students so hungry they had trouble climbing stairs. Suzy rushed over with a lunch of fruit salad and hot soup. A few children took home quarts for dinner. Soon after, she relaunched La Soupe as a nonprofit. “At first I thought the buy-one-give-one Toms shoes model would work,” Suzy explains. “But I wasn’t going to wait until I sold soup if there was a person in need. A pair of shoes can wait. Hunger cannot.”
The take-out counter still exists to bring in operational funds. But La Soupe’s true currencies are donated ingredients and time, all flowing efficiently through a web of stores, farms, chefs, schools and volunteers. “We’re concentrating on closing circles,” Suzy says. Only 11 people are on the payroll. Summer herbs are dried for winter. Bones become stock, which gives rich (and low-cost) flavor to vegetable soups like Smoky Roasted Tomato and Curried Cauliflower. Freezer-burned meat goes to a wolf sanctuary. Farmers pick up scraps and peels to feed their pigs and chickens.
Economical, flexible, scalable and easily transported, soup is a pragmatic solution for addressing hunger. But Suzy sees deeper meaning in the stockpot. She loves to retell a familiar folktale: Three soldiers walk into a village. Tired and hungry, they knock on doors. At each home, they hear the same thing: “I have nothing to give.” Undeterred, the soldiers place rocks in boiling water and announce they are making stone soup. All it needs is a little flavor. The curious villagers emerge. One offers an onion. Another a cabbage. A potato. A carrot. In the end, everyone feasts on a nourishing soup made of humble parts by many hands. “We don’t know what we’re going to get,” Suzy says. “But if everybody brings something, we’re going to have a soup.”
Suzy worked for more than two decades as a chef before redirecting her talents to serve a different community.
The haul of donated ingredients varies each week, so Suzy and her crew never know what they’ll be cooking. Today: a glut of peppers, some a bit old, wrinkled or weather-damaged, but all useable.
How La Soupe Works
When you buy fresh or frozen soup at La Soupe, the profits fund Suzy’s many outreach programs. Here’s a sampling.
Bucket Brigade Chefs at about 20 restaurants accept produce donations and use their own surplus ingredients to make soup, which volunteers distribute through schools and churches.
Soupe Mobile In cold-weather months, La Soupe’s refrigerated van parks at businesses or on street corners to sell nutritious soups and salads with a “pay what you can” pricing model.
Cincinnati Gives a Crock Suzy’s team hosts cooking lessons for older kids and teens. Students receive a slow cooker, so they can easily, safely and affordably make soup at home.
To learn more or donate (or to see which Cincinnati restaurants partner with La Soupe to help feed hungry kids), visit lasoupecincinnati.com.
More than 90 volunteers (and a handful of paid employees) keep La Soupe running by shuttling produce and soup donations, fielding calls, teaching classes, sorting ingredients, and washing dishes.
Volunteer Carolyn Collette guides students at Roll Hill School during one of La Soupe’s Cincinnati Gives a Crock classes. Kids learn basic kitchen skills, explore new flavors and become heroes by bringing home ingredients to make slow-cooker meals for their families.
La Soupe sources produce from dozens of donors. Grocers like Kroger provide surplus or past-its-prime produce. Local farms contribute unsold veggies that would otherwise be composted or turned over in the fields.
Chef Jason Louda left his job as sous chef at Cincinnati’s Metropole to be La Soupe’s executive chef.
La Soupe recipes
Buttermilk lends subtle tang, and smoked paprika adds earthy depth to Smoky Roasted Tomato Bisque, Suzy’s version of grilled cheese sandwiches’ best friend. Even with the step of roasting plum tomatoes, the recipe takes only an hour. See the recipe here.
Nutmeg, allspice, ginger, and naturally sugary Vidalia onion and sweet potato mingle to evoke pumpkin pie in Sweet Potato and Caramelized Onion Soup. The soup is dairy-free, but if you like, swirl in some sour cream or crème fraîche. See the recipe here.
Dotted with carrots, peas and potatoes, thrifty, lightly creamy Chicken Pot Pie Soup gets all its chicken flavor from broth. Brush scraps of pie dough with a beaten egg and bake at 425° for 8 minutes to make pot-pie-perfect crackers. See the soup recipe here.
One of the cafe’s most popular soups, the cleansing blend in Power Green Soup is flavored with garlic, ginger and horseradish, and is loaded with nearly 2 pounds of spinach, collards, kale and mustard greens. Try it with a squeeze of lemon. See the recipe here.
In Thai Egg Drop Soup, curry paste and fish sauce (both available at large supermarkets) give a Thai twist to the Chinese take-out staple. Ready in about 20 minutes, this is a great pantry recipe for frigid winter weeknights. See the recipe here.
Let your imagination roam to India when it comes to toppers for mildly spicy Curried Cauliflower Soup: toasted unsweetened coconut, coarsely chopped cashews, a dollop of yogurt and warm naan bread for dipping. See the recipe here.