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Free, tasty meals provide a reason to visit Miriam’s Kitchen

Cheryl Bell, executive chef at Miriam’s Kitchen, spoons coconut curry sauce on vegetables. The charity serves breakfast and dinner every day to people in need. Miriam’s Kitchen is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

The meals at Miriam’s Kitchen have a familiar rhythm. There are more diners at dinner than at breakfast, fewer diners overall at the beginning of the month than at the end of the month. That’s because of the unique guests Miriam’s Kitchen serves: people experiencing homelessness in Washington, as well as people who have a place to live but can’t always afford to buy food.

“If someone has a good spot in the morning, especially if it’s raining, they don’t want to lose it,” says Cheryl Bell, the executive chef at Miriam’s Kitchen.

If you’ve been sleeping in a park, on a bench, in a doorway — with all your belongings nearby — you may not want to rouse yourself to get to 24th Street and Virginia Avenue NW by 7 a.m. for the hour-long breakfast service at Miriam’s. You might prefer to go hungry and wait till dinner is offered from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.

There are fewer diners at the beginning of the month because that’s when people receive their benefits checks, Bell explains. They can afford to buy their own food. Those funds dwindle over the course of the month.

“Then in the last two weeks it gets really heavy,” Bell says.

A recent Friday afternoon finds Bell in the kitchen, on the lower level of Western Presbyterian Church. It’s 3:30 p.m., half an hour before the doors will be opened to guests, who already are lined up on the sidewalk outside. The dinner menu is written on a whiteboard: a choice of chicken coconut curry or vegetarian curry (cauliflower, spinach, peas, chickpeas), rice and cabbage, along with salad and applesauce. Bell stirs a large pot of curry as volunteers from Ernst & Young chop vegetables for the salad.

In the dining room, more volunteers from the consulting firm are getting instructions from Rachel Glassman, the corporate partnerships officer at Miriam’s Kitchen. Some of the Ernst & Young volunteers will hand out plastic cutlery, some will take beverage orders (water, juice or coffee), and others will stand behind a table covered in free gloves, socks, thermal underwear and personal hygiene kits (toothbrush, toothpaste, hand sanitizer, deodorant, tissues).

There are also condoms and doses of Narcan, the nasal spray that treats an overdose. Visitors can pick up their mail and charge their phones in the dining room.

At 4 p.m. Glassman says, “Let’s get in position.”

The doors open, and guests start coming down the stairs and into the dining room, where 15 four-person tables are laid out in three rows. Each guest has a numbered ticket of the sort you’d find at a deli counter.

Meg Dominguez, assistant director of social services, greets the diners. “Good evening,” she says. “Welcome to Miriam’s Kitchen. Have a seat.”

Chef Cheryl comes out from the kitchen. “Good evening, everyone,” she says before describing the menu.

When Dominguez announces the range of numbers illuminated on a lighted board on the wall — “Up to 870, please … 880 please, 890 please” — guests rise from their seats, hand her their tickets and line up to be served at the kitchen’s counter.

“I’ll take chicken, please,” says the first guest.

Dinner is one way for people in need to enter the Miriam’s Kitchen orbit. Some people will come for meals for years before taking up the group’s offer to match them with a case worker who can find them housing.

It can be easier to accept help from someone you know than from a stranger, and Dominguez greets many of the diners by name: “Hey, Paul! Hey, Jeff!”

And so it goes for the next hour, as men and women who have been living in parks, in tents, in cars come down the stairs to eat and relax. The last client comes through the line at 4:55 p.m.

Exactly 140 guests have been served, about what Bell predicted, based on the time of the month. Any unserved food will be packaged for people living in permanent supportive housing.

At 7 a.m. on Monday, people will come down the stairs for breakfast.

Helping Hand

Miriam’s Kitchen, a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand, serves breakfast and dinner every weekday to people who need it. It does a lot more, too. And you can help support that work.

To give online to Miriam’s Kitchen, visit posthelpinghand.com and click where it says “Donate.” To give by check, write Miriam’s Kitchen, Attn: Development, 2401 Virginia Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20037.

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