The Thanksgiving meal served this year at the Pike Market Senior Center was rich in its bounty: Along with turkey, the center served hundreds of pounds of potatoes, carrots, leaks, beets, turnips and greens, all locally grown and freshly prepared -- nothing stale out of boxes or cans laced with chemical ingredients or super-charged fats.
The meal was part of a special "Eat Local for Thanksgiving" campaign that took months to arrange with various donors. But meal program manager Diane Carmel and others who rely on donated food to feed the homeless believe they can make fresh and wholesome the rule and not the exception of free meals -- even if it means having to tell donors "no" on occasion.
Carmel is working with the nonprofit meal providers of Seattle's Meal Partnership Coalition on Eat Real Food, an educational campaign launched in March that aims to get both donors and groups that serve meals to step up the quality and nutrition of the food they provide to the city's poor.
In the Senior Center's Nov. 22 feast, for instance, "There was nothing there that wasn't made with fresh, whole ingredients. It wasn't the dregs from the grocery store," Carmel says. "That should be our goal every day."
The campaign, which the coalition plans to advertise inside Metro buses starting in January, includes a brochure that gives donors and meal providers a few guidelines. It asks individual donors and grocery chains to provide meats that are free of antibiotics or hormones and local food that doesn't contain trans fats, preservatives, sulfites, or genetically modified ingredients.
Meal providers are also asked to read the label, avoid sugar and salt, and use only whole grains and cold-pressed plant oils, along with thoroughly washing all produce to remove pesticides and contaminants.
"If there's an ingredient in the food that you don't recognize," says campaign originator Beverly Graham of Operation Sack Lunch, "it's not food and it shouldn't be put in your body."
Graham coordinates her own and six other programs at an outdoor meal site the city designated one year ago at Sixth Avenue and Columbia Street. She asks the other providers to adhere to the Real Food guidelines to ensure that the homeless and working poor who come for a meal -- and are often frail or ill, she says -- get the nutrition they need to keep them going.
"Some people are rolling their eyes," Graham says. "But a meal provider does not have to go organic to provide food that has better nutritional content." It can be as simple, she says, as finding a way to get or buy more fresh vegetables, wash them in a produce wash and, most importantly, learn to say no when necessary.
When a grocery store calls to say it has a pallet of cookies or Pepsi to give away, instead of the vegetables or bottled water a program might need, "The providers don't know how to say 'No, thank you,' because they don't want to lose a donor," Graham says. "We want to educate them it's OK to say no."
She also wants to educate individual donors about what generosity really means.
"People donate things they aren't going to use: crap from the back of the cupboard that's been sitting there three years that they wouldn't feed to their families," Graham says. "When we contribute stuff that no one else wants to people, the message we're sending is horrendous -- it's 'You're not worthy.' But no one changes their lives if they think they're not worthy."
Carmel says the campaign counters the old adage "beggars can't be choosers," an idea she calls offensive. But at the Pike Market Senior Center, where her budget of 38 cents per meal has to serve hundreds of hungry retirees each week, some processed food does end up on the menu, she says.
"We try to use whole grains and we do use olive oil," Carmel says. "It's not cold-pressed, first-issue olive oil, because we can't afford that," she adds. "But the fact we're buying that instead of butter is good."