WASHINGTON – When the region was hit by more than two feet of snow last week, volunteers at a community food kitchen knew there was only one way to respond: They rolled up their sleeves and got cooking.
As residents emptied grocery store shelves and stocked up on personal supplies for the storm, workers at the D.C. Central Kitchen stepped up production and gave away more than 60,000 meals to homeless shelters.
“The week was a tremendous learning experience for me,” said Gregg Malsbary, director of programs at the kitchen. “It’s amazing to see this thing come together, especially on the weekend with two feet of snow— trying to maneuver all the food and get the trucks unburied, loaded and staged to hit the pavement out there.”
The D.C. Central Kitchen is a non-profit organization that recovers unused food, prepares and delivers meals to partner social service agencies, and trains and employs the homeless. The kitchen began its first operation in January 1989 when volunteers decided to redistribute the leftover food from the presidential inauguration ceremony.
Since then, the kitchen has become the largest meal distributor for the homeless in Washington, serving about 4,200 meals per day. With the recent winter blizzard it has decided to increase its efforts, cooking 7,600 meals a day.
“There are just more people with more need,” said Abby Flottemesch, the former development director for the kitchen’s Campus Kitchens project, and a cooking volunteer last Wednesday morning. “Because of the weather, they’re just trying to get people off the streets.”
The D.C. Central Kitchen has agreed to cook extra meals for the crowded shelters.
“With hypothermia and the storms, the shelters have actually had to keep all the homeless individuals within the shelters the entire day,” said Malsbary, who explained that shelters usually host people for about 12 hours a day. “The city has asked us to pick up breakfast and lunch, which we have not normally done.”
If the winter storm has increased demand for food, it has also decreased the supply of volunteers at the kitchen. After the first wave of snow on Feb. 5, only three volunteers were available to help the following morning. Usually the kitchen hosts between 20 and 40 volunteers a day, with an annual base of about 11,500 volunteers in 2009.
“After the snow we had significantly fewer volunteers for obvious reasons,” said Malsbary. “The government closings and transportation problems have been major hurdles, but we’ve been able to pull volunteers locally.”
To get more help, organizers began a “flier blitz” in the neighborhood last weekend, advertising the kitchen in nearby stores and apartment complexes to draw out a local group of support. On Monday and Tuesday of last week, the kitchen received about 10 to 12 volunteers a day. As a second burst of snow hit the capital Wednesday morning, nearly 20 people came to volunteer.
“This is my first time here,” said Patrice Yao, a human resources consultant who came Wednesday to help in the kitchen. “I live in an apartment seven or eight blocks from here…Last night there was a flyer by my mailbox that said D.C. Central Kitchen is in dire need of volunteers because of the snowstorm…I wanted to be able to help out as much as possible.”
Even with the new help, it’s likely that the kitchen staff will have their hands full in the coming days. According to the National Weather Service, a couple more inches of snow are expected to hit Washington Monday afternoon, though another major snowstorm is unlikely.
As the snow continues to fall, volunteers inside the kitchen will continue to meet winter cold with warm ovens and fresh food.
“Instead of shutting down, we actually take it on,” said Malsbary. “Roll on the sleeves and let’s go, because we can do it and we are doing it, which is just amazing.”
Elizabeth Schiffman contributed to this story.