Navigating Seattle’s Soup-Kitchen Maze

This is a test of the Emergency Food Services System. It is only a test.

I started with ham, dressed with a light but tangy mustard sauce. Next was the fresh spinach salad, outfitted with thinly sliced Asian pears and green peppers. The couple dining with me was enjoying vibrant Southwestern-style turkey soup and orzo pasta, with onions, peppers, mushrooms, and zucchini. I turned to the boyfriend: “Where are you guys sleeping tonight?” “Not sure; we might be in our friend’s car.”

My meal was not at one of Seattle’s newest restaurants, but at the Recovery Café, a community center for people recovering from addiction. I was undercover—visiting the meal programs and food services that make up our city’s emergency food services in an attempt to see the faces, hear the stories, and taste the dishes obscured by the almost-unfathomable numbers. According to David Takami of the city’s Human Services Department, the City of Seattle spends $3.3 million helping to fund 17 food banks, 11 congregate meal programs, and nine food home-delivery programs. Our food banks alone dole out more than two million pounds of food to 80,000 people each year, and that number is growing.

But numbers don’t tell you whether it’s easy to find food—or if when you do find it, after walking all day trying to get to the right location, it will be delicious or horrible. Or how limited your options are if, say, you’re a vegetarian and homeless. Using statistics to understand the challenges that face those who rely on these programs is like reading just the box scores in the sports section. Numbers indicate only mathematical results, not physical experiences.

I wanted real people, tastes, emotions, and frustrations to accompany the figures being thrown at me. I wanted to actually know what it was like to survive on donated meals, sack lunches, and city-funded food resources, even for a brief moment. I wanted a tiny, but honest, snapshot of that life to give those statistics some meaning.

So I started the experiment.

These were the ground rules I set for myself: I wouldn’t use a cell phone, personal computer, or the help of friends, and I did no research before I set out. (My only knowledge of the system came from a few hundred volunteer hours at a youth homeless shelter in the U District, but that was years ago—and besides, I was now too old to use that shelter as a guest.) I would use only services free and available to the public—mimicking, essentially, a person who’s just been kicked into the system, who has no insider information, no one in the community to give him tips or tricks for helping suss it all out.

To help me fit in: a XXXL SuperSonics sweatshirt, track pants, and some old Vans. I imagined such an outfit would make me appear more destitute. I later realized how idiotic and bigoted that mind-set was. Though I saw people with more derelict clothing than mine, I also came across meal-site guests dressed far better than I ever am. When I interviewed program directors in the days and weeks following my meals, I avoided telling them that I’d utilized their programs, to avoid as much bias as possible. Lastly, to offset the benefits I received, after research and reporting were complete, I donated $20 to each organization where I’d eaten.

And there were plenty to choose from. The number of coalitions, organizations, associations, task forces, programs, volunteer groups, churches, scout troops, and clubs that exist to feed Seattle’s homeless and low-income population is mind-boggling. Around the holidays, that already massively chaotic, saturated work force gets even larger as more people dig deep and throw a few coins into their karma meter. Kim Jones of Operation Sack Lunch, which manages the Outdoor Meal Site (OMS), informed me that volunteer requests for the holiday season, November and December, are 55.4 percent higher than they are the rest of the year. Of their 3,700 annual volunteers, approximately a third work these two months. Thanksgiving 2013 is already full—and is booking up for 2014. Jones sent an e-mail on November 18 turning down requests to help on Turkey Day this year. I ask her if she’s able to convert many of those people into volunteers for other times of the year. Unfortunately, she’s not. One reason she cites is people’s lack of time off outside the major holidays.

It’s too bad, because help may be needed now more than ever. In late October, a $5 billion reduction in the federal food-stamp program took effect, cutting each individual’s allocation by 5.5 percent. The cut is a result of the expiration of extra money that had been placed in the program by the 2009 stimulus bill. According to the USDA, Washington’s food-stamp program currently serves 1.1 million residents. While a 5.5 percent cut may not seem like much, it equals a loss of $36 a month (from $668 to $632) for the average family of four—which translates to entire meals taken away. The cuts only reduce each person’s individual allocation, and don’t kick anyone out of the program . . . yet. At press time, the proposed Republican-backed farm bill would cut a whopping $40 billion from the program and throw out nearly three million people.

I started on a Saturday, on Capitol Hill. At 8 a.m., I got to the library to research resources—and suffered my first setback. The library was closed. I hadn’t even considered that. So I found myself doing what I assume a lot of our homeless population is forced to do: wait. Two hours later I was inside.

It didn’t take me long to find a comprehensive list of programs on the city’s website. Entitled “Emergency Food Services”—which made me imagine a high-intensity ER and a surgeon screaming “I NEED A BLT, STAT!”—it had information on food banks, hot-meal programs, and meal-delivery services. But sifting through that list to find a suitable place to eat was not as easy. By “suitable,” I don’t mean favorable Yelp reviews; I mean that getting in would be possible. Looking at each meal site’s restrictions, I realized I’d have to consider my age, ZIP code, religion, sobriety—in some cases, even my ethnicity.

But the most difficult things to figure out were where and when. The document was several pages long, including everything from shelters to churches to community meal programs, but only a very few offered food with any regularity. “Lunch is served the 3rd Sunday of every month at 2pm.” “Dinner is served at 5pm the second and third Tuesday of every month.” And on and on. You’d need a personal assistant just to keep all the dates straight.

If services seem random and chaotic, it’s because they are. As Reverend Bill Kirlin-Hackett of the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness would later tell me, “Food deserts are a real issue. There’s some [meal programs] around, but part of the problem is that they’re not all offered regularly.” By “food deserts” he means areas, geographic or temporal, where no food resources—like grocery stores, food banks, or meal programs—are available. Look at a map of the city’s meal programs, and you’ll see that most are downtown, with few or none in places like West Seattle or Rainier Valley. In some areas, like Magnolia or Mercer Island, this makes sense: The wealthy don’t typically need a free lunch. But in other areas, where emergency food services could greatly benefit a large percentage of low-income families (rather than only those without housing), there appears to be a severe lack of regular attention.

During my 30-minute guest pass at the library (because I had no I.D. and no library card), I managed to create a rudimentary game plan—a breakfast, two lunches, and a dinner—and got addresses and times from a list on the city website. That Saturday, the only place I could conceivably walk to in time for lunch was the OMS, or Outdoor Meal Site, at Sixth Avenue and Columbia Street. I jotted down some notes on where I could get other meals and left the library quickly. I didn’t want to be late.

The OMS has been in operation, unofficially, since 1994, when founder Beverly Graham took it upon herself to start feeding the city’s homeless directly, one person at a time. “I would walk around the city handing out sandwiches, or set up in the park and do the same,” she later told me. Graham’s service caught the attention of more than just people living on the street. “The city had an issue because I was giving out food without any sort of food-handler’s permit or licensing.”

But instead of quitting, Graham used the city’s complaints and threats of fines as an opportunity to start a real meal program, Operation Sack Lunch, and a site for other providers to serve from, first located in the city’s Downtown Public Health Center and moving to multiple locations before ultimately finding the Sixth and Columbia spot underneath I-5. It’s a location some critics say is inhumane, because clients are served outdoors. But Graham says exposure isn’t always a problem. “Some of our guests are uncomfortable going into any buildings for any reason, often because of PTSD or other mental-health reasons. Our site allows them a place to eat.” In the nearly two decades since she started, the OMS’s impact has exploded; it’s now responsible for serving more than 170,000 of Operation Sack Lunch’s 400,000 meals a year, two of which were now in my lap.

The contents of both bags were the same. Part of me felt excited to see what was inside, like an expectant child hoping for something decent in their packed school lunch. Maybe I’d get a Snack Pack I could trade with someone. But there was no Snack Pack. Each bag contained one plain croissant in plastic wrap, a chocolate cereal bar, a small bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos, and a Capri Sun. The only item whose quality I could really judge was the croissant, which was mildly stale. I ate through one of the bags, and looked around to see how other people were reacting to their lunches. The couple to my left was feeding their croissant to an army of seagulls. No one seemed ecstatic about the food.

When I went back to the site a week later to interview guests and the site coordinator, the scene was far different. (They also knew I was coming.) Fusilli pasta, fresh salad, and garlic bread was being dished up by a cheery line of fresh-faced volunteers. The difference in quality was likely due to scheduling. The site coordinator, Graham’s son Taran, explained: “We do three meals a day five days a week, and then subcontract out the weekend meals to various groups.” My Saturday sack lunch had come from one of their understudies. The best meals, it seemed, were served by Taran and Graham’s own staff, who strive to always provide “nutritionally dense” meals. Taran worries about being able to do that. When I ask about the food-stamp cut, he told me, “We’re definitely anticipating an increase, and already saw a boost at the beginning of the month.”

The food-stamp cut, a blow to any emergency food service, comes at a bad time for the Meals Partnership Coalition (MPC), which helps support meal programs throughout the city, including the OMS. In 2011 MPC lost a bid for city funding that had previously paid for an all-important coordinator position—someone to organize the chaos of providing hundreds of thousands of meals throughout the city each year. Instead, the money went to Solid Ground, the organization that runs most of Seattle’s food banks. Now OMS is trying to convince the city to provide $40,000 annually to pay for the support coordinator they used to have, to help manage the various contractors and volunteers and ensure that they can continue to offer food of the same quality. It’s a position that has always been funded for city food banks, which derive a majority of their funding from the city, but only periodically funded for meal programs. The discrepancy seems unreasonable, especially when you consider the service that OMS is still able to provide.

Then last week, a proposal was accepted by the City Council to invest an extra $480,000—this time to go to meal programs like the OMS. But at the last minute, food banks were added as possible recipients. The council vote was scheduled for November 19, and advocates thought it would pass easily. But at the last minute, the proposal was simply wiped from the agenda. No vote, no money—and no one is really sure why. Graham called it “bizarre.” The Human Services Department’s Takami doesn’t know what happened either. Dana Robinson Slote, communications director for the city council, says, “Council had limited funds with which to work, and had to choose among competing priorities.” If navigating the maps and schedules for meal services is challenging, trying to understand the inside machinations of money distribution for programs is even more daunting.

One of the guests on my follow-up visit, a 41-year-old Forest Whitaker look-alike named Billy, backed up my impression of the OMS quality. “The food here is really good. It always is. It’s a lot better than some places, like Union Gospel. They’ll just throw anything into a pot and serve it to you.” I smiled. Six days and a few hours earlier, I had been at the Union Gospel Mission for breakfast.

You’ve probably driven by the Mission dozens of times. At the corner of Second Avenue Extension South and South Washington Street near Pioneer Square, it’s not the sort of place many people want to find themselves late at night. Its appearance is more stereotypical, more like the way many imagine a homeless shelter: Urban Robinson Crusoes line up outside among shopping carts, bearded lifetime backpackers jostle from foot to foot, and job-searching hopefuls fidget with their ties and hair.

The fluorescent-lit foyer was humming during my undercover visit. To my left, in the hallway leading to the chapel, I saw the line for breakfast and joined it. To be honest, I was intimidated and a bit nervous. I knew almost nothing of that culture—what was acceptable, what behavior might irritate a population that had every right to be in a very shitty mood. Furthermore, I was worried that someone would question my place there. The thought of their reaction to my faking their very real lives was enough to make me keep my gaze on the floor and mind my own business.

I felt safer inside, but there still seemed to be a tension—not helped by the hallway’s size, barely wide enough for two people to stand side by side. An older, Santa Claus–like gentleman came in and joined the line carrying five or six bursting bags of clothes and miscellaneous items, which blocked the doorway. With perfect timing, a grizzly 40-something in a denim jacket came down the hallway. “Get your fucking shit out of the fucking hallway, you piece of shit! Jesus fucking Christ, you’re blocking the whole fucking place!” Santa moved. Four days later, before a lunch catered by El Gaucho was served, another disturbance in that hallway—supposedly an argument between two clients about money owed—resulted in the first-ever shooting at the Mission, luckily ending with no fatalities. Breakfast was announced and we filed into the cafeteria.

It felt like a prison mess hall, crowded with long Formica picnic tables placed end to end. Each of us received a plastic tray of food from a silent staff. No choices, no smiles. I grabbed a glass of water and a banana, served by whom I assumed was a mother/daughter volunteer combo who stood rigidly behind the safety of their table. I sat down and examined my tray. A portion of what might have been at one time oatmeal was now merely a sticky carbohydrate-like substance. “Gruel” may be an exaggeration, but not by much. Adjacent the “oatmeal” was an egg so dry I could have used it as my napkin, and . . . a sausage? Maybe it was a hot dog. All I can be sure of is that it was tube-shaped and emitted grease. My only salvation was the water and the banana, which was covered in black spots. Despite several efforts, I could not finish the meal. When I got up, it appeared several other guests were having similar reactions. I handed my tray to a staff member, who robotically banged it against the inside of a trash can and stacked it with the others. I walked out into the street, glad for the fresh air.

Food quality is one of the primary focuses of Seattle’s army of emergency food leaders. To be more specific, food safety is a central concern. During another talk with Rev. Kirlin-Hackett, he told me, “A big problem is safe food. With so many people preparing food without food-handler’s permits, we often worry about food spoiling.” He mentioned a scenario in which someone in Woodinville baked a potato and wrapped it in foil, then served it in Pioneer Square hours later. Graham told me the same, as did Taran. It was apparently a true story; a little research led me to the organization, Food Not Bombs, that had served the notorious potatoes.

The problem is that after a few hours, foil-wrapped baked potatoes are like Cancún on spring break, if Mexico was a potato and sorority girls were botulism. The consequences are graphic: Imagine a large population, living on the street, with food in their stomach that feels more and more like an actual bomb every second, ultimately contracting dysentery and diarrhea with few if any accessible public restrooms. Kirlin-Hackett concluded, “It’s a problem.” I agreed.

To avoid this kind of issue, the Human Services Department requires any organization that receives general funds for meal programs to employ staff members who have had food training. But sometimes—and more often around the holidays—good-Samaritan groups that have watched Pay It Forward too many times feel the need to pitch in and pass out food, health codes be damned. While their hearts are in the right place, many don’t realize that spontaneous, unsupervised meal handouts aren’t necessarily safe. Those not funded by the city are often protected by the 1996 Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which holds donors non-liable for donating food. Still, Graham tells me, “The best thing for people to do is work within the system that already exists. That way we can help monitor food safety and have the benefit of additional support.”

Union Gospel Mission, clearly the low point, made Recovery Café an easy choice for best meal of my weekend. It’s housed in the triangular building bordered by Denny Way, Boren Avenue, and Fairview Avenue North, amid office complexes and sprawling parking lots that make up a bit of a no-man’s-land where Downtown, South Lake Union, and Eastlake meet. When I stepped inside, the difference between it and the OMS was immediately apparent. It was warm, clean, new, and bright. A handful of staff laughed and conversed with guests. People were drinking coffee, relaxing on couches reading the newspaper, or listening to music on their phones. Compared to everyone else, I looked the most in need of a meal.

I approached the desk where a cheery middle-aged brunette sat answering questions. “What can I do for you?” she asked.

“I’m looking for something to eat?”

“OK, are you a member?”

I immediately got nervous. “No,” I said.

The woman, who introduced herself as Nancy, explained how Recovery Café functions. It’s a faith-based community center for people recovering from addiction to drugs, alcohol, or both. To be eligible for a meal here, you have to meet two conditions: be a member, and be sober when you arrive. I met only one of these, but Nancy said that if I agreed to return and become a member, she could offer me a meal this one time. I wouldn’t be able to come back until my introduction meeting, which was scheduled for more than three weeks later. “We’re not a straight meal program,” she said, “but we can arrange something for you tonight.” I had gotten lucky.

I grabbed a hot cup of coffee and sat down at one of the two dozen or so wooden tables that make up the majority of the cafeteria area. The buffet dinner was served shortly thereafter, and it was fantastic. Ham, salads, soups, fresh bread, coffee, tea, and more important intangibles like conversation, smiles, and a sincere sense of concern were all on the menu.

The difference in quality between places like Recovery Café and Union Gospel Mission is due to the fact that they are very, very different organizations. Union Gospel is open to all, for just about anything: It’s a place to stay, to eat, to get clean, to be warm for a few moments. Recovery Café is specifically for those suffering from addiction, and thus involves a completely different set of donors, supporters, programs, and initiatives. Its goal is not to feed every hungry person in Seattle; rather, it’s one of many meal programs that base entry on factors other than hunger.

These restrictions, meant with good intentions, often determine who can get food in the city. Many meals require sobriety or some amount of participation in a faith-based activity—Bible study, going to church. For those who don’t want any restrictions, options are far more limited.

Ironically, my final meal, at Immanuel Lutheran Church on Thomas Street in South Lake Union, didn’t involve any proselytizing. This church is one of many that offer sporadic community meals throughout the month, helping to fill the gaps in communities where there may not be a wealth of meal programs. After finding the right door, I walked into the packed lower floor directly below the church itself.

It was taco day and the line was massive, wrapping in a U around the room’s perimeter. I got in line and scanned the crowd: men and women of all ages; families with kids; the elderly; Americans of African, European, and Asian extraction as well as a large contingent of Native Americans. The line moved slowly, and as I peered at the service window, I could see why. First, the portions were massive: heaps of taco meat loaded on tortillas, with a dinosaur pile of salad. Secondly, there was dessert. A fleet of cake and pie slices awaited those who had just gotten their plate of tacos, and many were having a hard time choosing just one piece. Lastly, the food was being served by kind older ladies, who moved at an understandably slow pace and obviously enjoyed chatting with every person in line as if they were all related and this was just a good ol’ fun family dinner.

I got my own taco mountain and sat down to eat. It had been hours since my experience at Union Gospel and I had regained my appetite, partly from the walk between Pioneer Square and South Lake Union. By the time I reached Immanuel Lutheran, I’d walked six miles, crisscrossing the city center in search of food. Large, cold corn tortillas served as the foundation for a mixed pile of rice, beans, and chicken, which competed for space alongside a spring-mix salad with a light vinaigrette. It was bland and not terribly hot, but the portions were large and I finished the entire plate. I saw very little food wasted at Immanuel Lutheran. I learned later that most of the food was probably only a step or two from being tossed out in restaurants, grocery stores, farms, and backyards, intercepted by one of thousands of volunteers and advocates who see far too much food going unused and proactively save it for those who need it most.

Repurposing, recycling, and utilizing food that would otherwise be tossed is easily one of the most incredible feats of our city’s emergency food system. The OMS rescues 434,000 pounds of food a year. Last year City Fruit, an organization that harvests plums, apples, and pears from the private yards and gardens of city residents, rescued over 20,000 pounds of fruit that otherwise merely would have dropped to the ground and rotted. But perhaps no feat is more impressive than those achieved by our food banks, which process millions of pounds every year, much of it from an army of private donors, grocery stores like QFC and Trader Joe’s, farms, and churches. The food is everywhere. How it all gets distributed is too much for one person to comprehend, and no one really seems to. Alison Pence, who runs the oldest food bank in Seattle, St. Mary’s in the Central District, says “There’s a lot of organized chaos, but it somehow works. I’ve learned not to ask how or why, it just works.”

Part of what makes food banks work is their funding. Over a third of the city’s emergency food fund ($1,167,299 in 2013) goes to them. They’re also easier to contribute to. Most people have dropped a can of soup in a donation bin at the grocery store, but the number of people who have volunteered at a soup kitchen, much less made a pot of soup, is far smaller.

In the end, I was able to eat fairly easily, despite what seemed to me a largely disconnected system. But learning how to navigate that system without resources, according to the clients I spoke with, is as obvious and simple as talking to people in the community. Billy from the OMS told me, “It’s easy. People talk and find the spots that they like. If you’re hungry in Seattle, something is wrong with you.” Now that I’d gotten the lay of the land and talked to so many people who use the services, I understood his point.

But another client, a middle-aged man named Tom, overheard him and stepped in to clarify. “It’s easy for some people, but that’s not always the case. There are those that can’t make it here because of physical disabilities, those that are mentally ill, women, young people, and homosexuals that don’t feel comfortable in the lines because they get harassed sometimes. It’s not easy for everyone.”

Just when I thought I was starting to get how it works, I realized how complex the entire system is. For those in decent physical shape and mentally sound, getting food is as easy as asking a buddy. But for the rest, and those new to the area or the system, it can be a logistical nightmare.

“The weird thing is that we’re in a business where the ultimate goal is to go out of business,” says Graham. Right now, though, it appears that while clients seem happy, while the food seems decent overall, while the need appears to be met, the numbers clearly indicate that business is booming. And as budget cuts slash more food-stamp funding nationwide and emergency food services across Seattle prepare to try to win the support of a new mayor, it seems that Graham and her colleagues have no worries about losing their jobs.

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