Mrs. Obama on the line at Miriam's Kitchen; photo courtesy of Choice Photography.
Last week, Michelle Obama made news by serving a meal at Miriam’s Kitchen, a DC social service agency. Miriam’s Kitchen feeds 4,000 people each year, mostly from fresh, wholesome ingredients. I caught up with the executive director of Miriam’s Kitchen, Scott Schenkelberg, to discuss food, hunger, and Mrs. Obama’s visit.
Tell me about Miriam’s Kitchen.
Miriam’s Kitchen was founded 26 years ago as a free breakfast program for homeless individuals. The goal was to offer people a good meal after a long cold night on the street. For the first fifteen years of the organization, that was the scope of the organization. During this time, the organization was run and driven entirely by volunteers.
In the late 1990s, Miriam’s Kitchen expanded in scope. We were able to hire professional staff, both for the kitchen and to provide case management services. We continue to serve great food. We also offer the services of licensed professionals who are trained to work with challenges faced by many of our guests, including mental illness or addiction. People come in the door because of the good food; once there, they’re able to access services that they may not have known existed. Food and case management go hand-in-hand. If we offered one without the other, Miriam’s Kitchen wouldn’t be nearly as beneficial to our guests.
How many meals do you serve?
We serve 200 meals a week; at least half of our guests return multiple times each week. Often, the meals that they eat here are the only decent meals they have that week. Over the course of the year, we serve approximately 4,000 individuals.
It sounds like you serve some terrific food there; tell me about the meals that you provide.
In 2001, we hired a trained chef, Steve Badt. Steve empowered our volunteers to help create terrific meals from fresh, nutritious foods, often including local produce. Under Steve’s direction, volunteers have formed strong partnerships with local farms and farmers’ markets, so that we have access to fresh, wholesome produce. We also work with grocery stores, including Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, to get access fresh produce and other quality ingredients. All of our baked goods are produced in-house from wholesome ingredients. We incorporate fresh ingredients in other ways, too; our program is housed Western Presbyterian Church at Virginia Avenue NW. Members of the church planted an herb garden onsite, so now our meals contain fresh-cut herbs, as well.
The food matters here. The truth is, we could more easily have access to low-cost, low-nutrition packaged foods, but that’s not our ethic. Our focus on quality translates to our guests. Many have chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, or HIV. Others are struggling with cancer. Serving nutritious foods help them realize that we care both about their health and about them. The week before Mrs. Obama’s visit, we served eggs benedict. On that day, one of our guests commented that we must genuinely care about him, because nobody had ever served him this kind of meal before.
Have you noticed a change in your clientele as the economy has suffered?
Absolutely. Until recently, we served mostly the chronically homeless, people who had fallen out of the economy long ago. More recently, we’ve been seeing more new faces, people who just fell into homelessness or other hard times. These people are generally high-functioning individuals who were hurt by the poor economy. It’s very troubling to see previously self-sufficient people coming to Miriam’s Kitchen in such high numbers.
Since the First Lady’s visit, both your guests and your food have been the subject of some criticism within the blogosphere. For example, some critics noted that one of your guests had a cell phone and suggested that it was inappropriate to serve free food to someone who could afford a cell phone. They also mocked the food that was served — mushroom risotto with broccoli — as being elitist. What’s your reaction?
Let’s start with the cell phone issue. I suspect some people don’t understand how inexpensive cell phones are, or how critical they are to this population. These days, you can purchase a cell phone at 7-11 for $10, then pay for minutes as you go. Our clients have a very fragile safety net. Many of them don’t have shelter and are extremely vulnerable. For them, cell phones could literally be a lifeline. If they’re looking for a job, the cell phone would also be incredibly important — can you even imagine trying to apply for a job without a phone number? Cell phones simply aren’t luxuries anymore. If a guest can scrape together some money to purchase a cell phone, I think that’s wonderful.
And your response to the criticism of your food?
Risotto is rice, vegetables and stock. I wonder if the reaction have been better if we had called it something different, like “rice casserole.” But, generally speaking, criticizing a program for quality food seems ridiculous. Why wouldn’t we provide nutritious food? Why would we serve food that we wouldn’t want to eat in our own homes? Everyone should have access to quality food, regardless of circumstance. Honestly, most of that fresh produce is donated, and would go to waste otherwise. I read many of the comments, and they all seem to stem purely from a lack of understanding.
How did Mrs. Obama’s visit come about? And what was it like hosting the First Lady of the United States?
Mrs. Obama had heard about Miram’s Kitchen from someone who works in her office, and her staff contacted us to say she’d like to serve a meal there. I was thrilled, both that she’d be visiting our organization and that she was delivering a message about lending a helping hand, getting past stereotypes of hunger and homelessness.
There were many, many details and logistics that we had to work through, but we have an amazing staff and network of volunteers; I was amazed by how smoothly it all came together. Mrs. Obama’s staff, too, was terrific. Everyone, including the secret service, were totally professional, and they demonstrated remarkable respect for what we were trying to accomplish. They were able to maintain a high level of security while still ensuring that the people who wanted to come in for a meal were able to. Mrs. Obama herself struck me as someone who fundamentally understood what we were trying to do. She was extremely warm and engaging, across the board, both to staff, and — more importantly — to our guests.
Mrs. Obama with staff and volunteers at Miriam's Kitchen; Schenkelberg is in the navy blazer. Courtesy of Choice Photography.
Do you think having a high-profile volunteer like Michelle Obama accomplishes anything for your organization or the issues you face?
Yes, on several levels. First is the message it sends to our guests. They aren’t accustomed to receiving that kind of attention from people of such high stature. They were absolutely beside themselves that she would want to take the time to serve them a meal, to talk with them. It was just wonderful to see them connect with her. It really helped give them the message that someone cares about them. It’s also a huge credibility boost, both for Miriam’s Kitchen itself and for organizations like ours; the fact that we were vetted and selected for this kind of high-profile visit makes me very proud.
Long term, I hope that her visit has the effect of bringing more attention — and also resources — to these issues. Organizations like ours are suffering. The economic downturn has been tough for us; our funders have less discretionary income at precisely the moment that we have an increase in need. Nobody knows yet how bad things will be, or how long it will take before the economy improves. We have so many goals we’d like to reach. For example, we would like to replicate our morning programs in the evening. But these goals require an increase in funding and infrastructure, both of which are difficult in this economic climate. If a visit from Mrs. Obama helps us bring attention to the issues, we might better maintain our daily operations in the short-term, and perhaps get a little closer to our long-term goals.
What message would you give to others who care about issues like these?
Get involved. Our program runs almost entirely on volunteer help. We literally could never, ever do our work without our network of committed, trained volunteers. Volunteers help in the kitchen. They help make our case management services run more smoothly. Every weekend, volunteers head out to the farmer’s market, gleaning produce that we use all week. It’s not just the hours they put in, either; it is their enthusiasm and commitment that makes all the difference.
Our program is easily replicable in other communities. People can use it to help their local soup kitchen, or schools, access quality food. They can do it by building connections, making community-level changes, one farmer at a time, one day at a time. There is a great deal of satisfaction in making it happen. But it only happens if people get involved.