New Program at Miriam’s Kitchen Offers More Than a Meal
For more than 17 years, the basement of a church in Foggy Bottom has been the go-to place for breakfast, lunch, case management, art and writing classes for thousands of men and women.
Miriam’s Kitchen routinely feeds 180 diners a day before 9 a.m., helped by an army of volunteers, orchestrated by chefs and supported by a steady flow of food and cash donations. Beginning last month, Miriam’s expanded its operations to include dinner—an endeavor requiring a second chef, more food and a whole slew of new volunteers. So far, with the new chef training new volunteers to uphold the restaurant-quality standards, things have been running smoothly.
“The food here has always been good,” said Howard, a long-time guest, as he ate a dinner of turkey, collard greens, salad, potatoes and dessert. “It’s much more like going to a restaurant than other dinner programs. If it wasn’t for this place, I really wouldn’t be able to eat.”
Howard and the rest of the guests don’t just eat, they eat well. Miriam’s prides itself on the food.
John Murphy, assistant director of kitchen operations, is a fresh-faced 23-year-old. He came to Miriam’s with much experience in the restaurant business despite his age. He found, not surprisingly, some significant differences between working for a dinner program and working at a restaurant.
Few in the restaurant business could imagine making dinner for 100 people with a completely different—and often inexperienced—kitchen staff every night with a menu that changes daily.
“It’s working with volunteer corps,” Murphy said. “You’re not really working with professionals. You’re working with volunteers and not the same ones every night. They need education and guidance.”
That education was on display during dinner preparation on a Tuesday night. Volunteers were schooled in properly seasoning eggplant parmesan, dicing red peppers and portioning danish, as well as remembering which sink is for sanitizing solution, hand washing, food waste or vegetable rinsing.
Then there are the menu challenges. While a restaurant can keep a fixed menu and offer specials, Miriam’s offers “specials” every night—rather, whatever was volunteered that week by Costco, private donors, farmers’ markets and so on. Still, Murphy tries to create themed menus. Tuesday’s turkey and greens was a nod to Southern cooking. Later in the week, he planned a Mexican-themed night with tortilla casserole and an Italian night with the aforementioned eggplant parmesan.
What has not been a challenge is finding volunteers. The dinner program, barely a month old, already has a waiting list to help out.
Tracey Adams, a volunteer with a group from the National Environmental Education Foundation, worked for the first time at Miriam’s last week.
During the course of the night, she prepped, served dessert and helped clean up. What most impressed her was the atmosphere in the dining room.
“I don’t know about other programs like this, but I noticed in the dining room everyone talking and laughing and interacting,” she said. “It’s just a real community there.”
For now, the community has ranged in size from the blizzard-low of fewer than 70 per night to a more consistent 100 or so diners each night. The kitchen can handle as many as 200 guests per night.
In addition to meals, Miriam’s offers case management, including mental health, and legal and medical services. Guests can get assistance in finding shelter, permanent housing and employment, as well as help securing benefits. There is a phone, voice-mail system and mailbox for guests, and enrichment programs, including art, yoga, writing, knitting and advocacy.
Albert Townsend, a guest at Miriam’s for more than two years and president of the People for Fairness Coalition, said the experience is unique among the services offered in the city.
“There are a number of programs with food, but this one is structured,” he said. “The great thing is that the meals are really very balanced. I’m vegetarian mostly, and I can always find something. But they also help people get more than food. They help people get from where they are to self-sufficiency.”
Miriam’s is seeking diners as well as donations. According to Sara Gibson, the development director, the new dinner program has expanded the organization’s budget by nearly $600,000.
For more information about how you can help, call 202-452-8926 or visit www.miriamskitchen.org.Miriam’s Kitchen is located at 2401 Virginia Ave., NW, in the District.