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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Thing 62: DC Central Kitchen

If you've been paying attention at all, you know I love to cook.

Feeding the people in my life is how I show them I care about them. The process of creating really good food, from scratch and all natural, brings joy to me and the people I share meals with. So it makes sense that when I want to help out in my small corner of this world, that I would choose to do it through food.

Last Sunday, I volunteered for the first time at the DC Central Kitchen (DCCK). What better way to spend an early Sunday morning than preparing food for those who need it most?

DCCK is a remarkable organization. For starters, their kitchens pump out around 4,000 meals a day, every day of the year, for approximately 100 partner agencies, all nonprofit human service organizations for the low-income and homeless populations in the area. Who prepares so many meals? Well, of course there are volunteers like me (and you!), but the majority of the cooks in this kitchen are graduates of a 12 week course that DCCK offers to low income and homeless individuals to train them in the culinary arts. After 12 weeks, these graduates are able to become certified food handlers, and are often placed in working kitchens of local hotels, restaurants and catering companies. DCCK is feeding the homeless and underprivileged, and teaching those same people to feed others, helping them get a fulfilling and well-paid job. In addition, the DCCK runs a catering service that employs people from the program, all proceeds from which are pumped back into the DCCK.

I arrived at the DCCK, located near the courthouse at 2nd and E St, NW, promptly at 9am on Sunday. I was directed to a small waiting room with about a dozen other sleepy-eyed and quiet volunteers. We were given a brief orientation by the executive chef about the history of the program, how the people we'd be working with used to be in jail or on the street. Then he explained that we would go into the kitchen, put on our aprons, put on our hairnets, wash our hands and then put on rubber gloves before being assigned to our work stations.

I ended up under the watch of Chef Bo, a black man in his late thirties who ran around observing and helping out wherever he was needed as a line of us cut vegetables or prepared baked fried chicken for the ovens. I spent about an hour and half trimming the ends and peeling the skins off of about 100 onions -- two huge sacks of yellow onions that Chef Bo slung over his shoulder and deposited at our work station. I was partnered with another volunteer named Sarah, a high school junior from Bethesda, Maryland, whom I had to show how to handle a chef's knife and who gossiped with her two friends about boys and colleges as we chopped and peeled.

After the two sacks of onions were peeled and washed, we were sure the next step would in fact be dicing 100 onions, and Sarah and I were getting ready for the tears that would flow as we cut so many onions. Instead, we were told to take a brief break and return for another job.

Back in the break room, we were met with a selection of Costco muffins and water and coffee. Our fellow volunteers trickled in for their breaks, now more talkative as the early morning had worn off. We introduced ourselves, shared muffins, told our stories. Nearly everyone there was in school -- either high school or college -- except for me and one other married couple. Apparently, altruism dies off a bit once it is no longer required by a professor or a guidance counselor. The woman who was not in school told me that she felt so inconsequential at her job as a government contractor, pushing numbers around all day in Access, that she felt a strong need to do something that she felt actually mattered. Her husband, a bespectacled, mousy Glaswegian, seemed be along to avoid any marital tension.

After coffee and muffins, we went back into the kitchen, re-washed and re-gloved, and got back to work. The second half of the morning I spent packaging food up for distribution. I packed up so many containers of hot, buttery, mixed vegetables, scooped out of a giant (30 gallon maybe) hot pot by another volunteer. After they were covered and packed, one of the workers packed them into catering travel containers - those heavy plastic plastic trunks that fit stacks of trays - for distribution later that day, still piping hot and fairly nutritious.

The final task of the day was unloading five cases of bags of frozen broccoli florets (organic Whole Foods brand), into one of the giant hot pots. Ever wondered what 100 bags of broccoli look like? The little green florets were piled literally as high as I am tall, and the vat needed to be stirred with both hands, with an oar.

At noon we were free to go, and Chef Bo hugged each of us and thanked us sincerely for helping out. I left the fluorescent light of the kitchen behind and emerged into the midday sunshine, happy I could help while doing something I love to do anyway -- feeding others.

If you can find an open time slot, please consider volunteering at the amazing and fun DC Central Kitchen.


Bo Sims said...

I just want to thank you for your kind words, and the time you spent here with us at the kitchen. It is always my pleasure to interact with the volunteers and to prepare meals for the people whom we serve.

Thanks- Bo

dc365 said...

Chef Bo, the pleasure was all mine! I will be back at the end of the month.

Koekkener said...

Cool!! I really admire those people who is have a kind heart and a down to earth. Congratulations and thanks for posting.