As I peer into the bagged meals prepared by Operation Sack Lunch, I wonder if this is where diet trends go to die. The bags, which will be distributed at several shelters, are packed with South Beach Diet Chicken Caesar wraps, chocolate protein shakes, and off-brand power bars. It seems an odd meal for someone on the streets, but as I spend the week eating in several soup kitchens around town, I'm often reminded that free meals for the homeless and hungry are dictated by whatever ingredients come in from the food banks or other donors.
Operation Sack Lunch serves hot meals, too, at the Compass Center shelter, and on the street outside First Presbyterian Church. At the Center, things are slow paced and the guys are chatty. Billy Lester says he's gained 17 pounds on the Center's hearty food since he came in a few months ago. The grub is pretty bland—soft spaghetti with turkey tomato sauce, romaine salad, rice pudding, and garlic bread that takes me back to my high school cafeteria. But it's clean, served with affection, and warm—which is especially important to the tightly bundled men and women waiting outside. Once served, they wolf down their spaghetti, some dousing it with personal bottles of hot sauce, hoping there will be enough for seconds.
Blandness is not an issue over at the Millionair Club, where the cooks have a generous hand with the spices. I have a hard time with my big bowl of chili; it is screaming hot—heat-hot and chili-hot—and I lean hard on the cornbread to soften the blow of the otherwise perfectly acceptable meat and beans. Program director Brent Harmon admits the food at the job-training facility isn't great—shit on a shingle appears weekly on the breakfast menu—but he says, "We're not about quality of food, we're about food safety." The Club's vast, neat basement reminds me just what a big operation it is, with towering pallets of grim standbys like government canned pork and chicken. But the walk-in freezers hold unexpected treats, like gorgeous king salmon, readymade quiches, and buckets of wrapped Dick's burgers that get reheated and served every Friday.
At St. James Cathedral's Family Kitchen, which officially serves dinner just to women, families, and men over 55, a burly man in his late 40s steps up to pick some lint out of my hair. This kind little act of grooming fits in perfectly at Family Kitchen, which boasts the most congenial atmosphere of any of the places I visit. The tables are laid with checkerboard tablecloths, someone is noodling around on the piano in the back of the room, and as one of the volunteers scoops out some gloppy macaroni and cheese, she gives me a mini recipe for the oven-dried tomatoes it contains. Family Kitchen serves the food you'd get at a hippie college co-op—totally earnest and full of every ingredient in the world. Unusually, FK gets the majority of its food not from food banks, but from upscale markets like PCC and Madison Market. It shows: The salad is filled with kale, olives, ricotta salata—even pomegranate seeds.
As I munch on what I'm sure is Tall Grass Bakery's pumpernickel bread, I ask my neighbors where they like to eat. One kid tells me that he likes what he calls "bumfeed" near Cal Anderson Park (turns out it's the Lutheran Church's twice-weekly community lunch: from noon to 1:00 p.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays) because there are unlimited desserts. "Most of us are addicts," he says. "We like dessert." Family Kitchen has lots of desserts, too, including dark-chocolate cake, spice cake, and lemon meringue pie.
Although Family Kitchen is a decidedly Catholic operation, no prayer is required for food. That's not the case at Union Gospel Mission, which requires people to sit through chapel or pay a couple of bucks before eating lunch or dinner. (But "there's exceptions to every rule," says Sharon Thomas-Hearns, UGM's press rep.) It's also the only community kitchen I hear food recipients complain about—the staff, the herding, the food, the prayer. So I grab a seat in UGM's wood-paneled chapel to see what all the fuss is about. For 40-odd minutes I listen to a man named Paul tell a roomful of tired, hooded men that by the laying on of hands he has cured people of cancer, ruptured aortas, schizophrenia, even jail.
After earning my lunch the hard way, I receive a couple of ham and cheese sandwiches that could have used some of Brother Paul's miraculous revival skills. They look like they've ridden around in someone's back pocket for a while and the bread's wheat germ had gone a little rancid. To UGM's credit, they serve more meals in a year than any agency in the city, about 1,000 a day—and as I leave, even the angry guy who rails against UGM on the sidewalk is eating one of their sandwiches.
Operation Sack Lunch First Presbyterian Church, Seventh Ave and Madison St, Mon–Fri 1 pm–2:30 pm
Millionair Club Charity 2515 Western Ave, 728-JOBS, Mon–Fri 6:30 am–7 am, noon–1:30 pm
Family Kitchen St. James Cathedral, 804 Ninth Ave, 322-2447, Mon–Fri doors open at 4 pm, meal served 4:30 pm–5 pm
Seattle's Union Gospel Mission 318 Second Ave, 622-5177, daily free breakfast 7 am–8:30 am; Mon–Sat $1 lunch 12:15 pm–1 pm; daily $2 dinner 5 pm–6 pm except last Thursday of each month; daily free meal after chapel at 11 am and 7 pm; Sunday, breakfast and dinner only