By Mariah Pohl, Edible DC Fall 2014 Intern and Contributor
The volunteer-run kitchen and prep area at Miriam's Kitchen.
Today, on Veterans Day, and on any given week day, Miriam’s Kitchen volunteers are up and at ‘em by 5:30 a.m. to start preparing gourmet meals for over 300 individuals. The kitchen runs—and tastes—very much like a restaurant, despite the fact that the patrons aren’t expected to pay for their meals. These “guests” are actually part of the 1,700 people living in the streets of Washington, and this organization is leading the way in caring for the chronically homeless. Especially poignant, is the fact that a large percentage of the homeless who get their breakfast and dinner at Miriam’s Kitchen are veterans, and it is a major goal of this non-profit to end veteran homelessness in D.C., with food as a connector to other supportive services. According to this nonprofit, “U.S. Military Veterans are disproportionately represented in this group; they tend to be homeless for longer periods of time, and live with more severe disabilities.”
Director of Kitchen Operations, Emily Hagel, explained the menu planning process-- very similar to running a commercial restaurant--with the added challenge of incorporating donated food items.
“Everyone deserves a really good meal,” says Director of Kitchen Operations Emily Hagel. “It’s amazing what a good meal can do.” Her description of a good meal is a delightful understatement. A stroll through the kitchen reveals bright, freshly peeled vegetables provided by local farmers markets, state of the art culinary appliances, and a bustling crew dedicated to making their guests feel welcome when they arrive and nourished when they leave. For these homeless individuals, a typical breakfast might include homemade buttermilk pancakes or hearty French toast topped with locally grown berries; healthy fruit smoothies, stone-ground grits, and bottomless cups of coffee. Dinners reflect the same wholesome integrity—seafood chowder with shrimp, calamari and scallops; warm house-made corn bread, leafy green salads, or shredded duck with creamy barley risotto.
A pantry shot at Miriam's Kitchen where donated food items are stored and logged in for menu planning.
“You can make a prince out of a pauper with food that is thoughtful and nutritious,” says Hagel. “Food evokes emotion. It can remind you of home and family, or a happier time in your past.” And she’s right—feeding someone in a way that acknowledges their worth allows them to discover that worth within themselves, an important step on the road to rehabilitation. Feeding people with dignity and building a sense of trust is one of the organization’s biggest goals, and this could not be done without the help of over 2,600 annual volunteers and crucial partnerships with farmers, restaurants, and grocery stores. “Our partnerships and volunteers take this very seriously—we get people in here who are stay-at-home moms and dads, lawyers, lobbyists, and consultants,” she explains. “You would be amazed at how important this work is to them.”
The White House donates fresh vegetables in the summer from the White House Garden started by the First Lady; these apples were surplus from the White House Halloween event.
And it’s not just delicious food that Miriam’s Kitchen provides—if someone needs a haircut, a hospital visit, or an ID card, staff and volunteers offer their assistance. This type of comprehensive care is also accompanied by a commitment to maintaining permanent supportive housing for those in need. What many people may not know is that it costs much less to house, feed, and provide heath services to those on the streets than to ‘fight homelessness’ with the existing system. As Hagel says, “Nothing is a one-way street. Homelessness affects us all and is something that should be viewed as a long-term problem and approached with a long-term solution.” With the Kitchen’s support, over 70 people are currently able to take advantage of these tools to get their life back, and the program itself boasts a 92% success rate in keeping the rehabilitated individuals housed.
A long shot of the large food storage pantry at Miriam's Kitchen.
Which brings us back to the food. “It’s something that can bridge the gap between those who have a house and those who do not,” explains Hagel. And it is this transformative power of good meal and a kind word that allows Miriam’s Kitchen to open up a new conversation about homelessness, establish meaningful relationships, and to continue making a difference in the streets of Washington—and help homeless U.S. veterans find new futures.
If you would like to donate food, kitchen products, or even just your time, Miriam’s is always open to expanding community involvement. For more information visit www.miriamskitchen.org/