In the 16 years that Food & Friends has delivered hot meals to people with AIDS or other life-threatening diseases, the organization has operated out of a cramped church basement and a dirt-floor warehouse in Southeast Washington.
Now, with help from $8.7 million in donations, Food & Friends has moved into a newly built facility on Riggs Road NE -- a much larger space that has an industrial-size kitchen, modern staff offices and wall hues with such names as chili pepper red and mustard seed yellow.
Food & Friends serves more than 1,000 meals daily throughout the Washington region, and during the move, no one missed a meal. Organizers began preparing meals at the new location about two weeks ago; the official dedication is this weekend.
"Everything we do at Food & Friends has always been the triumph of hope over the odds," said Craig M. Shniderman, executive director of the charity, which was founded in 1988 and initially operated out of Westminster Presbyterian in the 400 block of I Street SW.
"I don't think anyone stood in the basement of the Presbyterian church and thought we would be where we are today," Shniderman said. "But we did it because the community needed it and was willing to step up."
Food & Friends moved its operations in 1995, leasing a warehouse at 58 L St. SE. At the time of that move, the group served about 325 people a day. The new facility at 219 Riggs Rd. NE is twice the size.
Organizers said they hope to triple the number of meals prepared in the 25,000-square-foot facility, which also houses the group's clinical nutrition program.
Three cooked meals and "Groceries to Go" -- bags of nonperishable food items -- already are delivered daily to people in Washington and 14 counties in Maryland and Virginia, from Hagerstown to Fredericksburg.
The organization began with the goal of providing nutritious meals to people with HIV or AIDS but expanded its services several years ago to include people with other life-threatening diseases, including cancer.
"We would be literally driving by the house of someone with advanced colon cancer to deliver to someone with AIDS," Shniderman said. "So it really came to us as an issue of morality whether to ignore people with other illnesses, and it struck us as just not compassionate."
Food & Friends now employs 55 full-time staff members and has about 750 regular volunteers.
Eighty-five percent of the food products used to prepare meals are purchased wholesale by Food & Friends, with the remainder provided by donations and the Capital Area Food Bank, Shniderman said. Dietitians and nutritionists work with chefs to design menus for clients with various diseases, providing pureed meals, for example, to someone with throat cancer. Besides the meals, Food & Friends offers cooking classes and dietary seminars.
Shniderman and others said that much of the credit for the charity's growth belongs to volunteers from churches, schools and private companies.
District resident Andrea D. Tucker, 41, has volunteered for more than nine years, labeling food and packing meals into bags for delivery. She brings along three women who are mentally disabled to assist her.
"It's exciting," Tucker said of the new building.
Another volunteer, Aaron S. Van Gelder, 22, was at the new facility recently, scooping canned tangerines into plastic containers for delivery. For Van Gelder, who recently moved to Washington from Iowa, it was his first time helping at Food & Friends.
"They just put me to work, packing fruit, making cookies," Van Gelder said. "It's been pretty fun."
For those on the receiving end, Food & Friends has provided nutrition and support.
One client, a 44-year-old man with AIDS, has been receiving meals since 1997. He said his favorite dishes are the fried chicken and corn stuffing, adding that he always keeps a bottle of Tabasco sauce on hand to add a little more flavor.
"For one thing, it's helped me maintain my weight, my energy level," said the man, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified. "It's nice to know that someone will be knocking on the door, if it's just for a few moments."