Michelle Obama Serves Lunch at Miriam's Kitchen

First Lady Michelle Obama helped serve lunch today at Miriam's Kitchen in Northwest Washington. Video by DeNeen Brown/The Washington Post, Edited by Francine Uenuma/washingtonpost.com
By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 6, 2009

"Would you like risotto?" first lady Michelle Obama asked a homeless man waiting for free food. "That's my job -- to serve the risotto."

Obama went to Miriam's Kitchen yesterday, where she served about 50 homeless men and women. She stood at the end of a serving line and dished up risotto with mushrooms. She smiled. Asked how people were doing. Asked them what they would like. They smiled. Told her sure they would like the risotto, then moved down the line to get steamed broccoli, homemade apple-carrot muffins, wheat rolls and salad, made with fruit donated by the first lady's office.

Every weekday, rain or shine, Miriam's Kitchen, at 24th and G streets NW, serves breakfast to chronically homeless people, whom staff and volunteers refer to as "guests." Last year, Miriam's served 55,272 meals to more than 4,000 guests, a clientele that is overwhelmingly male, mostly African American and full of veterans.

Today, the guests were told to come in for a special lunch. That the chef was going to be making a special meal.

"We said we were celebrating the end of February. And Steve [Badt], our chef, was making a special meal. They know his cooking is so good," said Sara Gibson, director of development. Every day at 5, they start lining up at Miriam's Kitchen. At 6:30 a.m. promptly, the doors open. It is one thing they can count on. Another is food prepared on site to be healthful for the homeless, many of whom have physical and mental illnesses.

"If anyone brings us doughnuts, Steve throws them away," Gibson said. "It is not good food for our guests. We care too much to give them anything but the best. Steve wants our guests to have the same experience as if they were paying $30 for the meal."

Jennifer Roccanti, development associate at Miriam's, stood in the back as guests filed in and took their seats at round tables with white tablecloths. Glasses of Tang and cups of coffee in front of them. Weary faces wrapped in scarves. Their lives stuffed in bags. Wearing coats upon coats against the cold and danger of sleeping on the street. Mostly invisible people, living on the edge.

"It's unbelievable for our guests that the first lady will be here," Roccanti said. "It reaffirms the notion they matter. That people care about them. For the most part, people ignore them. But today, arguably the most popular person in America is coming and shaking their hands. We tell them every day how much they matter. But coming from the first lady of the United States, that is a powerful statement."

At 12:21, the rolling metal door to the service line rolled up. And behind the counter, stood Obama in a guava pink sweater and plastic serving gloves with serving spoon in hand.

Then one by one, the guests lined up.

And Obama dished risotto, one by one. Offering steamed, fresh broccoli.

William Richardson, 46, was speechless when his turn came. "Meeting her, I couldn't say anything," Richardson said a few minutes later, his food still untouched. "It was stage fright, I guess."

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