In many ways, the private, volunteer-run soup kitchen movement represents a good news side of the city’s rampant poverty. The kitchens subsist largely on the generosity of people who share what money or time they have.
Some District professionals lengthen their workdays to make sandwiches for the soup lines, while many suburban homemakers bake extra casseroles for the hungry. Schoolchildren such as those at Janney Elementary School near Tenley Circle in Northwest Washington help their parents serve lasagna once a month at the Dinner Program for Homeless Women.
The soup kitchens depend on the extraordinary efforts of people such as Larry Everett, a systems analyst in Alexandria. Six days a week, he gets up at 3 a.m. to prepare breakfast for 500 people at Llewellyn Scott House, 1305 T St. NW. It is known on the street as the “bean place.”
He makes a point of serving the food nicely, putting the bread in baskets. “We try to put on a show,” Everett says. The menu always includes his specialty: soup made with vegetables and six kinds of beans. He uses 50 pounds of beans a day, fetched from an adjacent shed that holds 1,400 pounds of beans. Thus: the “bean place.”
A devout Catholic, Everett explains his dedication simply: “You give what you have.”
On weekdays, about 2,600 breakfasts, 2,900 lunches and 3,400 dinners are served by Washington area soup kitchens. The number dips dramatically on weekends, when many of the kitchens are closed, and surges toward the end of the month, when disability, welfare and food stamps run out.
In the city, about two-thirds of the kitchens, volunteers and services are clustered in Northwest Washington. Suburban Maryland and Virginia have fewer than 10 facilities each.
In all, they represent a small piece of the total effort to feed the needy. There also are shelters, halfway houses and day-care centers that feed their own inhabitants, Meals on Wheels for the homebound elderly and Food and Friends, delivering meals to incapacitated AIDS patients. Food pantries, numbering in the hundreds, give out bags of groceries to homeless families with the means to cook their own meals.
Area soup kitchens vary as much as restaurants in style, size and purpose. They have learned to accommodate clients’ finicky tastes and digestions, bad teeth and fear of the unknown.
Some offer tablecloths, soft music and food lovingly prepared. Others evoke memories of the soup lines of the Great Depression, with hungry crowds enduring the winter chill for a bowl of watery soup and a place to get out of the cold.
The facilities range from large cafeteria-style settings to more intimate dining rooms offering table service for fewer than 30. Every soup kitchen has its following, and the quality of the food is sometimes a secondary consideration.
Zacchaeus Kitchen, 945 G St. NW, is one of the few that serves breakfast until 11:30 a.m., attracting a clientele that likes to call the morning meal “brunch.” Miriam’s Kitchen, near the West End section of downtown Washington, offends some with its menu of baked beans, mashed potatoes or corn, often served with breakfast pancakes.
But others say they like the food’s sustaining quality. And when the poor can afford the luxury of a Metro fare, some say they commute to Shepherd’s Table in Silver Spring, which gets rave reviews from its clients.A Dollar Goes a Long Way
Soup kitchens are economical. A dollar donated to one can stretch twice as far as a dollar handed to a homeless person on the street. The typical soup kitchen meal costs less than 50 cents, the kitchens report, far less than the $4.16 the city has paid per meal for homeless people housed in welfare hotels.
But comparisons may be misleading. Some kitchens operate solely with volunteer help and pay no rent; others have overhead costs and more ambitious menus. The Cooperative Urban Ministry in Shaw can make a meat sandwich for just under 15 cents; Children of Mine soup kitchen on Stanton Road SE estimates that it spends $3 a meal.
The homeless may be hungry, but that doesn’t mean they will eat just anything. They want familiar food: meatloaf, fried chicken, spaghetti and meatballs. Sweet potatoes are all right, but only with marshmallows. Processed cheese is far more popular than Swiss or Cheddar. Donations of specialty items such as blue-corn tortilla chips are a bust.
The crusty loaves that customers wait in line to buy at the Marvelous Market and Uptown Bakery on upper Connecticut Avenue NW are difficult to slice in the soup kitchens and many clients find the hefty bread hard to chew.
Soup kitchen food can be good or dreadful. If local homeless people were voting, breakfast at the Third Street Church of God just north of New York Avenue would probably win a “best soup kitchen award.” It always includes meat — usually sausage, sometimes bacon.
On a recent rainy Tuesday, with electronic gospel music playing in the background, the kitchen also offered scrambled eggs, stewed prunes, grits, Danish or doughnuts, and warm slices of bread. Hundreds of people filled the church pews by 8:30 a.m. and waited nearly 50 minutes before David Hines, who preaches and sings in this family-run kitchen, called them over a loudspeaker to go through the line.
The menu at the nearby “9:30 Club” — the street name for Zacchaeus Kitchen at 10th and G streets NW — is another matter. During a recent visit, breakfast at the large kitchen, which serves 13,000 breakfasts a month on a food budget of less than $100, was a bowl of brown broth with carrot peelings, bits of tomato, lentils and limp spaghetti. It was served with dry mashed sandwiches of peanut butter or turkey bologna, a couple of stale rolls and syrupy, sticky gingerbread — and no napkins.
Client Daryll Hollowell called Zacchaeus’s food “the bottom of the barrel,” but he and others flock there for another reason. Unlike some operations, which turn the homeless out as soon as the meal is served, Zacchaeus allows them to stay inside for several hours playing cards or socializing.
Soup kitchen clients learn to eat what they’re offered, to clean up their space, to leave when told. What little they get, they often share, passing dishes they don’t like to someone who does. And they learn to live with small disappointments.
On a recent Wednesday morning, the line for lunch at 10th Street Baptist Church in Shaw stretched to the end of the block. After 30 minutes, the door opened and the first lunch shift trickled out. Everyone was carrying a piece of seductive-looking carrot cake with nuts and a little frosting carrot on top. “What’s for lunch?” someone asked.
The word went down the line. A couple of men left. One who had eaten already got back in the line, in the middle. The next group was ushered into the large plain room, its long beige Formica-topped tables already set with lunch. “Caps off! Caps off! It’s not raining inside. Fill up both sides,” the staff barked.
At each place was a plate with a small mound of salmon that tasted canned or long-overcooked. There were instant whipped potatoes with powdery lumps in the middle and a damp pool of chopped spinach topped with a slice of cracked wheat bread that had soaked up the spinach juice. The crowd ate hungrily, eager for dessert. But the carrot cake ran out. The diners grumbled quietly as they filed out.
Passivity is a way of life in the soup kitchens. “If you ain’t paying for it, you’ve got no right to complain,” explained one homeless man outside So Others Might Eat (SOME), a kitchen whose clients dread the twice-a-week oatmeal days.
Homelessness is not new, and neither are soup kitchens. SOME and Christ House began feeding people in 1971. The Catholic Worker program at Llewellyn Scott House has a history of soup lines back to 1937. Many of D.C.’s soup kitchens started in the early 1980s, but 10 percent of them have opened in the last year, including a Salvation Army breakfast program for children on their way to school near Capitol Hill.
While the large feeding programs are well known on the street, the new ones find it takes time for the word to spread.
When Columbia Union College began its Loaves & Fishes van program two years ago, the immigrant parents of Langley Park were wary. “At first, parents seemed to think we were government and were suspicious,” said organizer Rich Castillo. “So they sent out their children” for the free sandwiches being handed out. The staff solved that problem by giving the children enough food for their families; 30 children were given enough to feed as many as 50 people.
As the need grows, the soup kitchens are facing new challenges. They, too, are having to learn to do more with less.
Since the recession hit, private contributions are down. The House of Ruth recently reported private contributions 40 percent below its budgeted projections. Some say that the same number of people are contributing, but in smaller amounts.Some Help from the Military
Ironically, the Persian Gulf war provided a windfall for the needy at home. Not only did it produce the camouflage uniforms that have become what some homeless men refer to as their ” ’90s fall fashion,” it also provided an inundation of powdered milk, powdered orange juice, raisins and coffee.
Last summer’s victory picnic brought D.C. Central Kitchen 8,000 pieces of leftover barbecued chicken. “We’re still dreaming of it,” said chef Sally Rumsey.
The volunteer work force that provides the backbone of the soup kitchens’ operations is as erratic as the food supply. Zacchaeus might get four volunteers on a Thursday, 60 on a Saturday. At Thanksgiving and Christmas, kitchens are flooded with volunteers, but things get lean in summer vacation season.
Yet more soup kitchens are trying to enhance their services, using meals as a hook to minister to the hungry with programs that stress education, housing and jobs.
The Dinner Program for Homeless Women offers a job program, legal clinic, mental health staff, housing assistance and classes — even occasional manicures. Third Street Church of God has after-school tutoring for at-risk children. SOME’s comprehensive program includes walk-in medical and dental care.
“People eat at the same soup kitchen week after week, year after year, while they may change shelters,” said Marcia Ruth, director of the women’s dinner program. “So we need to use soup kitchens to reach out to people who can’t otherwise be reached.”
Staff resource director Bridget Roeber contributed to this report.
NEXT: Soup kitchen logistics
Although the cost of a meal at a soup kitchen varies widely because of many variables-some are exclusively volunteer, some have paid staff; some have food donated, others pay for it; some pay no rent-all kitchens stretch a dollar much further than a person on the street could. Here’s a comparison of what $1 could buy at some fast-food restaurants, and how much some soup kitchens could serve for the same $1.
1 piece pizza
Two cinnamon and raisin biscuits
One-half breakfast special
After 6 p.m., 1.2 hotdogs
All Souls Unitarian Church
Four breakfasts of hot or cold cereal, juice, coffee and snack such as candy bar.
Bethany Women’s Day Center
Two lunches and two snacks: casserole, vegetable, salad, dessert, bread and drink.
Llewellyn Scott House 3.3 breakfasts of bean soup, salad, doughnut or pastry, bread, tea.
So Others Might Eat 1.5 lunches of meatloaf, ham, chicken or meat casserole, vegetable, fruit, dessert.