In Washington’s shadows, a kitchen douses hunger, saves souls (With Images)

June 21st, 2009 - 12:39 pm ICT by IANS  

Barack Obama By Arun Kumar
Washington, June 21 (IANS) “Hunger Exists Here.” So proclaims a huge 5 feet x 16 feet Xavier Cortada mural hanging on

the wall of a grey building in the heart of this capital city of the world’s most powerful and richest nation.

The mural does not depict the hungry and homeless in some far off developing country, but some 35 million people across

America, not just homeless but from working class families too who miss a square meal a day.

Today it hangs in the office of DC Central Kitchen, a non-profit “anti-soup kitchen” that also holds one of America’s

largest homeless shelters, a drug treatment programme and a health clinic. The kitchen provides culinary training and jobs for formerly homeless people.

Since its opening on Jan 20, 1989, to redistribute tonnes of food left over from the inauguration of the elder George Bush

as president of the United States, the kitchen has distributed over 20 million meals and helped over 700 men and women gain full-time employment.

Twenty years later, about five tonnes of food came from President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

“Working with an amazing team, we have transformed the DC Central Kitchen into a bad ass, $5 million annual operation,” said founder president Robert Egger during a visit to the kitchen where the likes of former president Bill Clinton have come to lend a hand as volunteers.

Built by a man who says all he “ever wanted to do was open the greatest nightclub in the world”, it today hauls in

close to two tonnes of surplus food from restaurants, hotels and farms and recycles it into more than 4,500 daily

meals.

“No one was interested in a programme that took people who were thrown away and food that was thrown away and made

something out of them,” Egger said. So “I ‘temporarily’ postponed my career in the nightclub business and started the DC Central Kitchen.”

The meals are delivered to shelters and non-profit agencies free of charge.

The kitchen’s mission is to end hunger by addressing the root causes of hunger.

In this kitchen, with its industrial-strength cleansers, walk-in freezers, bags of misshapen carrots, distorted

tomatoes, trays of macaroons, Darnell Herndon, 59, learned a new way of life pulling himself off the streets 12 years ago.

“I lived upstairs at Clean and Sober Streets and came down to the kitchen every morning at 5.30,” he says. “To me the kitchen was like a recovery programme - no alcohol, no drugs. It was a safe zone for me.”

Among others who came and never left is Carolyn Parham, 39, a graduate of the programme who now works as a volunteer programme coordinator. The kitchen drew her with the promise of a free lunch and a free uniform.

She saw a flier at a welfare office. “I took the flier down so no one else could see it,” says Parham, who says she was once addicted to crack cocaine.

“I had messed my life up so bad. DC Central Kitchen saved my life. My kids tell me, ‘Mommy, don’t ever leave the kitchen.’ The kitchen held me together. If I didn’t have this place to come to, I don’t know where I would be.”

She tells her story to save others. She points to her face. “I have no vision in my right eye. I have a tumour on the right side of my brain. I have a broken foot.” She was beaten nearly to death in 1991 in DC, she says.

She has been clean now for 15 years.

Then there is Kajuan Ashford, just 20, the only child of a single mother, who started selling drugs - cocaine, heroin, marijuana - on the streets at 15, “by choice as drugs were all around me in my neighbourhood and it was easy money”.

He had already made a 100,000 dollars when he was picked up and spent a month in jail before being bonded out. Now he

is at the kitchen learning to be a chef and how to make an honest living for his own child who would be born in July.

Like Ashford and Herndon, 65 percent of the staff are felons - convicted of the worst crimes, even murders, says Egger.

“When Bill Clinton - one of the most intelligent presidents - came he didn’t how to cut a carrot. It was a convicted felon who taught him.”

Now Egger wants to bring some two million people in American prisons back into the mainstream with a fleet of vending

carts operated by them. “I want to put the baddest felon in a cart in front of the World Bank” just a couple of blocks

away from the White House.

Egger also wants the felons on his kitchen staff to go and cook for a state dinner at the White House.

What a power statement it would make when after the dinner Obama calls them out and tells his guests: “Ladies and gentlemen, meet the people who cooked your dinner?”

(Arun Kumar can be contacted at arun.kumar@ians.in)

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