by NIKKI SCHWAB
Hidden away in a basement of a Capitol Hill homeless shelter is a bustling kitchen that provides Washington’s homeless and poor with thousands of meals each day.
Pans clatter in the background as 26 antsy volunteers sit in a common room in D.C. Central Kitchen awaiting instructions.
“Once you wash your hands, don’t scratch your hair, your ear, your butt nothing,” instructs Carolyn Parham, D.C. Central Kitchen’s volunteer program manager.
She gives the two groups of volunteers, one from a college in Madison, Wis., and the other a Methodist youth group from Springfield, Va., instructions about how they can help the D.C. Central Kitchen create the 4,000 meals they produce each day.
D.C. Central Kitchen opened its doors in 1989. Founder Robert Egger came up with the concept as he was buying food for the homeless and managing city nightclubs. He realized the large amount of food the clubs and restaurants wasted each day and started asking them to donate leftovers. The kitchen then prepares the food and delivers meals to homeless shelters, halfway houses and other social programs in need of food.
“Food comes in, food gets prepared, food goes out,” explains Brian MacNair, the kitchen’s director of development and communications.
In its 18 years, the kitchen has expanded to include job-training programs and now provides meals to 100 agencies in the Washington metropolitan area.
Trays of donated hotdogs and chicken nuggets sit out ready to be prepared as meals. Volunteers are given gloves and hairnets. Everyone with longer hair, yes everyone, has to wear a hairnet (even visiting reporters).
Workers and volunteers bustle around the kitchen, several wearing “Feeding the Soul of the City” T-shirts and others donning chef garb.
“Hey, what’s in those cans, James?” a man asks as he zips by chef James Nobles. Chef James answers hastily, “Snow peas,” and goes back to overseeing the production of today’s hot meal: sweet and sour chicken. He glances into one of the two 65-gallon kettles of simmering orange-brown sauce and gives it a stir.
Sue Ossmann, an adult student at Madison Area Technical College, has come to Washington for the first time with her two kids, Nick and Cassie, also MATC students. The “mother figure of the group,” according to daughter Cassie, is assisting Chef James put together the sweet-and-sour sauce.
She stands at the end of an assembly line of seven carrot cutters and peelers, and struggles to take the tops off jar after jar of duck sauce.
“I’m weak,” she says as she shrugs her shoulders.
Chef James comes to her aid, and they both begin dumping syrupy sauce into the steaming vats.
A little down the line, Refema Shew focuses her attention on cutting carrots. Actually, she’s “shaping” them, not cutting them. It’s her first day as a volunteer at D.C. Central Kitchen, but she’s hoping to be here for weeks to learn more about culinary arts. Shew wants to participate in the kitchen’s culinary job-training program, a 12-week program that, if she finishes, could someday lead to a career as a chef. But before she can dream big, the kitchen requires interested participants to volunteer for three days. She says she doesn’t see this as a challenge: She loves to cook, and she once worked in a restaurant.
In the back of the kitchen, Dorothy “Miss Dot” Bell strictly patrols a group of salad makers.
As a 12-year veteran of D.C. Central Kitchen and its job-training program, Miss Dot has been nicknamed the drill sergeant for her strict command and commitment to cleanliness, according to MacNair.
When President Bill Clinton volunteered at the kitchen during his presidency, she ordered him to wash his hands and put on gloves.
He laughed. She didn’t.
Today, she paces through her section and monitors each of her volunteers carefully.
“Young man, throw your gloves in the trash,” Miss Dot says, urging a volunteer toward the hand-washing sink.
The lettuce contingent, a trio of men from Springfield and Madison, smash lettuce heads against the steel counter in front of them, rip out the stems and pull apart the leaves.
It’s a new technique that Miss Dot has shown them, and it has made their job a lot more entertaining.
“It gives you the opportunity to get out those frustrations,” says Rich Davis of the Messiah United Methodist Church in Springfield, bashing another lettuce head against the counter.
On the side of the kitchen where cold foods are prepared, Vera Scott, wearing her “Feeding the Soul of the City” T-shirt, slices ham for a ham-and-eggs breakfast. The District native, who “grew up in Georgetown when it was called Foggy Bottom,” graduated from the job-training program. Today, she works with the kitchen’s Healthy Returns Program, which provides snacks and nutritional guidance to youth programs.
Over in the catering section of the kitchen, chef Mark Dietz sprinkles red onions atop two spring salads to be served at a business luncheon tomorrow. Dietz is a trained chef and part of a full-service Fresh Start Catering outlet that brings in around $200,000 in revenue each year that’s reinvested in the kitchen. Instead of using donated ingredients, Dietz’s creations are made from purchased ingredients to be used in mid- to high-end catering jobs, he says.
Dietz, new this week to the kitchen, is a former culinary instructor who plans to use his skills to teach those in the job-training program. He wants his students to graduate and go onto the Ritz Carlton not T.G.I. Friday’s.
“These guys are too good for that,” he says as he speedily chops a carrot.
Back on the hot food side, Chef James has added the other ingredients to the sweet-and-sour sauce, chicken nuggets, celery, onions, carrots, snow peas, mushrooms, maraschino cherries, and the sauce has thickened to near-perfect consistency.
The salad makers have prepared and assembled their ingredients and are ready for construction.
Miss Dot watches as her workers line up at the containers filled with lettuce, white onions, carrots, red onions, cucumbers, tomatoes and cheese.
Nick Ossmann stands ready at a container filled with chunks of cheese.
“Just break it up,” Miss Dot instructs him.
The group passes large aluminum containers down the row, and lettuce and other veggies get tossed in.
“Keep your hands out of the cheese if you have your hands in the tomato and cucumber,” she yells to the backs of those working. The message is directed toward a woman volunteer standing next to Nick, who is poised to grab up his cheese.
“Looking good, looking good,” Miss Dot yells as 26, then 27 containers of salad get loaded on a cart. Only 40 more to go.
Her contingent moves faster as she paces behind volunteers’ backs and monitors those responsible for draping the containers with plastic wrap.
“If you drop something on the floor, PLEASE do not bend down and pick it up,” Miss Dot warns as a volunteer dips below the counter to scoop up some food.
“Wash your hands!” she says.
One group member from the Methodist Church reminds her that it’s time for them to leave, so they can be on time for another volunteer engagement. Their “Urban Plunge” program has them volunteering at two venues each day during Easter break.
“Wisconsin, good working with you,” Davis says as the Methodist Church group exits.
The assembly line has dwindled down to three volunteers from Wisconsin. As they put the last salad on a cart, Miss Dot thanks them. She tells them to throw their hats, hairnets and gloves away. The meals for the needy are finished.
Now it’s time for lunch.