By: Chris Heaney
Every morning Wolfgang Poe wakes up and heads to work. He arrives at the well-adorned stone building that is his daily workplace and heads to the kitchen. In his 30-plus years as a chef, he has worked in several different kitchens. He says this one is a nice size, not too big and not too small.
The staple of the menu on this particular day is salmon -- not a rarity but definitely not a usual dish -- which he plans to blacken and serve with a side salad and cheese biscuits. Chef Poe has three assistants in the kitchen today, just how he likes it. More people in the kitchen can get crowded, and there’s never enough work for more than four.
He puts them to work preparing the dining room and getting together ingredients for the salad while he gets started on the protein. It’s 10:30, and they have little time before the clientele arrive for the one meal served at Poe’s kitchen each day.
Such is the beginning of any given day at Community Kitchens in Birmingham, Alabama, at Saint Andrews Episcopal Church on the corner of 12th Street and 11th Avenue. This is where volunteers from colleges, members of corporate organizations and other groups get to work.
The clientele they serve are between 50 to 80 of the estimated 1,092 people who suffer from hunger and/or homelessness every day in Birmingham.
Poe’s kitchen is one of two Community Kitchens that operates out of an Episcopal church, the other operating out of Grace Episcopal Church in Woodlawn. The two Community Kitchens serve more than 95,000 meals to the hungry and homeless, who everyone involved with the organization refer to as guests, every year.
“It was very unlike anything I’ve ever done” said Poe about his start at the kitchens. “The clientele are not paying. They all come in and eat for free.Most of the people we serve are homeless or the working poor; they have issues, some are addicted to drugs or not all there mentally.”
Although they are operated out of churches, the Community Kitchens are
not religiously affiliated. According to the Community Kitchens Director
Randy Yarbrough, the kitchen and cafeteria space are rented from the two
churches, paid for by private contributions.
“Everything is really private funding.We don’t get any public money
whatsoever,” Yarbrough said.
These donations come in the form of checks from individuals, large gifts
from local companies and from fundraising efforts. These efforts vary,
but the largest money maker is a holiday card fundraiser held every November.
The Community Kitchens work with a local artist to design a holiday card,
which can be purchased for a donation.
“People treat the card like a gift,” Yarbrough said. “It’s the idea that ‘sorry I didn’t get you a new tie. I got you this card, which means we fed the hungry’.”
Monetary donations like these are vital to keeping the Kitchens open, but it is the donations of food from several sources that keep the guests fed every day. Large amounts of food can come from the local food banks, wholesale chains like Costco, and even grocery stores like Publix. This is a blessing for those who eat the food, but to Chef Poe it can be a challenge preparing it for them every day.
“Normally, I know exactly what I’ll be making, but then I get surprised by the donations,” Poe said. “[The donations]can completely change what I make. It’s all based on what we get.”
Poe said he always adapts to the “curve balls” that come his way with each donation. When the Community Kitchens received a large amount of lettuce, wedge salads were served to much praise. A week's’ worth of lamb showed up at the door, and Poe treated the guests to several curries and Moroccan stews. Although every meal is served cafeteria style because of the sheer number of guests, Poe makes it a point to never recreate the same thing or skimp on quality.
“I would never inflict on people the same damn thing every day,” Poe laughed. “I don’t want to eat the same stuff every day. If I’m not going to eat it, I’m not going to put it on a plate.”
The Community Kitchens stresses the concept of treating the guests as well as you would treat yourself, and they have since their beginning in November of 1980.
“Everybody gets hungry, no matter how rich or poor they might be, and we feed anyone who’s hungry,” Yarbrough said. “We don’t ask questions.We don’t make demands.All you have to do is show up and want a meal and you eat with us.That’s the end of the story.”
This ideal includes those who want to serve the guests too. “Everybody from every walk of life” volunteers at the kitchens, according to Yarbrough.While most volunteers come from organizations, some are people with court mandated community service hours.
Mike is one of those people. Mike wasn’t comfortable sharing his last name or reason for needing the community service hours, but he was excited to talk about the Community Kitchens. According to Mike, he started working at the St. Andrews location to pay his debt to society but ended up finding an affinity for helping feed the hungry of his home town.
“I like to give back because I know if I was on the other side, if I was in the streets, I’d want someone to provide me a hot meal or a place to stay,” Mike said. “I’m able to touch people’s lives just by serving them a plate of food.”
Mike works as an assistant to Chef Poe in the St. Andrews location where he makes sure everyone gets a plate, gets what they need, and doesn’t take more than their share.
“We are the only kitchen in town who does seconds,” Mike said with a smile.
Those wanting to volunteer like Mike can do so easily by scheduling a date and time to help on the Community Kitchens web site. Chef Poe said that it is extremely rare for the kitchen to be short staffed.Usually they have the opposite problem.
“Sometimes we get overwhelmed with people.Groups come in like a fraternity or a sorority, and they bring all of their people,” Poe said. “I had nowhere to put them.”
So many people willing to volunteer is physical proof of the impact the Community Kitchens has, and how it embodies the concept of “The Beloved Community,” a concept coined by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the height of the American Civil Rights movement.
According to The King Center, “Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth.”
The Community Kitchens are one of the organizations whose primary goal is to share the wealth of the community, taking donations of money, food, and time and turning them into meals for the hungry.
“We treat everybody the same, and we treat everybody with respect,” Yarbrough said. “You know, if you come to us for service, you get it, and I guess that’s the only way to embody [The Beloved Community] is to never differentiate, serve everyone equally.”
People like Poe, Mike, and Yarbrough represent the part of the community that serves those less fortunate, but talking to any of the guests at either Community Kitchen during lunch time can give anyone an idea of what it is like to be served.
Take Thomas, an older man in a University of Alabama windbreaker and hat, who sat at the table closest to the door, making sure to spread butter on as much of his corn bread as he could. Thomas didn’t go into much detail about his reasons for being a guest at St. Andrews that day, but he gave some insight as to what a hot meal meant for people in his situation.
“We are all here for one reason or another, that part doesn’t matter,” Thomas said. “It’s the food we can get here or at other places around the city, and the people who are good enough to make it for us, that’s what actually matters.”
The dining room at St. Andrews was full to capacity on the day Thomas shared his story, each guest looking entirely different from the rest in more ways than just clothing. Some were disheveled, others clean shaven and well dressed. Some had on work vests, others pajama bottoms. It was clear that people from all walks of life needed a meal every once in a while.
The ideals of the Community Kitchens were summed up by their immediate-past President of the Board, Tucker Brown.
“Based on my experience, we deal with our fair share of folks who are tied up with drugs or struggling with undiagnosed mental illness.I know that is nobody’s idea of the clean and savory, easy-to-tell charity story, but these are people who need to be fed and we need to make sure they are taken care of.”