By Phyllis C. Richman

From downtown to the far suburbs, a chain of eating places has been growing with a speed that McDonald’s might envy. It has nearly 70 locations in the Washington area, and it serves 3 million meals a year.

Yet this operation makes no profit, no income at all. It is Washington’s network of soup kitchens, a vast enterprise that will feed any hungry man, woman or child who comes along. Free.

Soup kitchens once were considered the exclusive domain of the hard-core inner-city poor, like the young woman layered in sweaters to protect herself from the chill of a recent winter evening in McPherson Square downtown. One of many in the bedraggled crowd, she juggled a cup of coffee, two sandwiches, fruit and dessert — the night’s offering from McKenna’s Wagon at the curb.

Feeding the Homeless

Youth Ministry projects often center around one of the Fruits of the Holy Spirit. When we made and served meals to some of the homeless and hungry D.C. residents, we experienced one of those gifts – charity – in action.

Matthew 25:35 says, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

For this project, we joined McKenna’s Wagon, a mobile food truck that is a service of Martha’s Table, a Washington, DC soup kitchen. Our middle and high school volunteers joined McKenna’s Wagon, making stops at McPherson Square and The World Bank where they served hot meals, as well as sandwiches, homemade muffins, fruit, as well as water and iced tea.

They handed food that they helped make to homeless men and women and gained an understanding of how service is an essential part of living a Christian life. By removing the veil of anonymity, the students were able to see the direct result of the charity.

They learned that volunteers join McKenna’s Wagon, seven days a week, 365 days a year to feed hundreds of DC residents who may be experiencing homelessness or hunger.

However, today’s soup kitchens also are feeding multitudes who never thought they would ask for a handout — the newly jobless and families living on the edge. In suburban Gaithersburg, for instance, the Lord’s Table feeding center has seven highchairs for the increasing number of children among its regulars.

There are people like Barbara Wrice, a disabled former department store worker trying to stretch her tight budget. For the last three years, she has come to the Dinner Program for Homeless Women in a downtown Washington church basement to socialize and to dine on meals such as one recent night’s fare of barbecued chicken and sauteed peppers over rice.

And people like the Rev. Henry L. Ferguson, dapper in plaid shirt and necktie as he handed his two stepchildren books to read while they waited to join the second shift in the dining room of Christ House in Alexandria, where he’s been eating off and on for the last decade.

Those fed by the kitchens mirror the area’s changing demographics: younger than in years past, drawn from all races. Some places serve only women. At the Desayuno y Dialogo (breakfast and dialogue) program at St. Margaret’s Church near Dupont Circle, the clientele is Hispanic, and black beans and tortillas are menu staples.

The Salvation Army has mobile kitchens crisscrossing affluent Fairfax County to service motels used as homeless shelters. Operation Love in Woodbridge has fed homeless people living in the woods of Prince William Forest State Park. Project PB&J provides summer meals for children in the Dumfries area of Prince William County. In Montgomery County, Bethesda Cares serves 50 lunches each weekday in a three-year-old program that is nearly doubling each year.Filling a Neighborhood Void

The demand is so great that at least half a dozen new kitchens spring up each year and quickly find themselves swamped with clients. Tim Hutchens’s experience is typical. He and other volunteers started a program last year to fill a void in services for the poor in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Northwest Washington.

He put signs on telephone poles and waited. At first, nobody came; then he lured the homeless from nearby parks. Now, he provides 200 breakfasts a week at a cost of $50 a week.

“A lot of these guys feel that the world owes them a bowl of oatmeal,” said Hutchens, whose weekend Neighbors in Action breakfast program operates out of All Souls Unitarian Church at 16th and Harvard streets NW. “They’re right. The world does owe them a bowl of oatmeal.”

Twenty million Americans now rely on a soup kitchen or food pantry each month, according to a study by the House Select Committee on Hunger. In Washington, where the city provides shelter for more than 3,000 homeless people and at least 2,000 to 4,000 others sleep in the streets, the people who run soup kitchens reported that they had served nearly a third more people this year than last.


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