People were already gathering on the steps of All Pilgrims Christian Church in Capitol Hill at 4 p.m. on a gray Wednesday afternoon. The meal program run out of the church by Community Lunch wasn’t set to start for another hour, but participants were out on the sidewalk chatting and laughing, biding their time until the meal would be served.
Community Lunch runs a dinner program on Wednesdays and Thursdays and a lunch on Tuesdays and Fridays. For many, the meal is a lifeline, a way to get warm, healthy food, to connect with the longtime staff and volunteers and get basic necessities such as clean clothing, boots or an umbrella.
Inside the main hall, volunteers were already at work, bagging up donated pizza from Pagliacci’s at one table and dog food from Whole Foods for people to grab on their way out. The room itself was ringed with collapsible tables covered in food — single-portion desserts in white-and-red checkered cardboard containers and dozens of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on one another.
A separate section had mounds of clothing, mostly T-shirts and sweatshirts separated by size. In-demand items were kept in the back, which the staff called “the supply closet.” Socks, gently used boots, underwear, charging cords, other odds and ends that make life comfortable and that most housed people don’t think twice about are the kinds of things that this clientele is desperate to acquire.
The clothing comes predominately from Lifelong, a nonprofit that provides food, housing and health services to low-income and homeless people. The food, including the actual meal of beef enchiladas, roasted vegetables, vegetarian frittatas and a green salad, are mainly donated by stores like Whole Foods and Safeway, the local P-Patch garden and farmers’ markets.
“We’re super fortunate to live in this food-wealthy area,” said Brittnee Busse of Community Lunch on Capitol Hill. “We have more strawberries than we could possibly deal with.”
Community Lunch gets a heads up on the main protein that they’ll be working with up to a week before. It’s enough time for a volunteer cook to create a menu and execute for that day. Some like to use their family recipes as the main inspiration for the meals.
“Some do it ‘Chopped’ style,” said program manager Jentien Pan, referring to a Food Network show where guest chefs take a basket of mismatched ingredients and create a meal for judges for $10,000 in prize money.
Community Lunch has a handful of paid staff, but many of the people who make the program possible are volunteers. One lead cook comes in nearly every Friday of every year for the lunch served at Central Lutheran Church on 11th Avenue, Pan said.
At 5 p.m., staff opened the doors to the growing crowd of people. They knew the drill. File back around the side of the church gathering area, grab some hand sanitizer and head toward the kitchen where the freshly prepared food would be served.
Some were strategic, hitting up the supply closet first for the items in high demand and low supply. Socks were a frequent request — fresh, clean socks are critical for people experiencing homelessness without ready access to a washer and dryer. They do more than feel good. Socks are critical to foot health, wicking away moisture and preventing blisters. Wet, dirty socks, however, can be a hazard, leading to skin infections and other maladies.
Socks went quickly, and folks who came in asking for specific sizes of shoes and pants often had to compromise and go with something a little too big or a little too small. Such are the quiet indignities of poverty: always compromising on diet and clothing, rarely having the luxury of choice.
It’s more than an inconvenience, it’s a way that people get trapped in poverty. One man had a bicycle, which he intended to use for work, but he had no lock or a helmet. The supply closet didn’t have either on offer, but Pan jumped on the phone with a friend at a local bike shop to see if she could find another solution.
The meal is a rapid affair. Guests are done within an hour and then turned back outside, often with a fresh change of clothes or some food to go. Many will be back, if not for the Thursday dinner then perhaps the Friday lunch.
They don’t have many other options.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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