The First Lady
At Miriam's Kitchen, Michelle Obama Feeds and Mingles with the Homeless
By DeNeen L. Brown
"Would you like risotto?" first lady Michelle Obama asked. "That's my job -- to serve the risotto."
Obama went to Miriam's Kitchen today, where she served about 50 homeless guests. 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, home-made 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 chronically homeless people breakfast. Last year, Miriam's served 55,272 meals to more than 4,000 guests.
Today, they were told to come in for a special lunch -- and that the chef was going to be making a special meal.
"We said we were celebrating the end of February. And Steve, our chef, was making a special meal. They know his cooking is so good," said Sara Gibson.
All the food at Miriam's is prepared on site. The group wants the food to be healthy for the diners, many of whom struggle with illnesses, physical and mental. Ninety-six percent are male; 70 percent African-American; 13 percent veterans. The average age is 46. Nearly 75 percent sleep on the streets or in emergency shelters. Every day at 5 a.m., they start lining up at Miriam's Kitchen. At 6:30 a.m. promptly, the doors open. It is one thing the visitors can count on. Another is healthy food.
"If anyone brings us donuts, 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 table clothes. 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. Sitting at round tables waiting. 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 everyday how much they matter. But coming from the first lady of the United States, that is a powerful statement."
"Our guests," Gibson said, "are people on the street, people usually look through them. We all see people walk by them. That's why we call them guests -- not clients because they are special. Mrs. Obama's visit tells our guests they are not forgotten. That President Obama and Mrs. Obama care about their neighborhood and their neighbors who a lot of people don't care about."
"It's tough being on the street. This says you are human," Gibson said. "They live on the street. There is danger at every turn. To have Mrs. Obama here says for a minute, we are all together. It will give people hope. They need hope. A lot are struggling with some really serious issues. For some of them, hope is what they cling to."
At 12:21 p.m., the rolling metal door to the service line rolled up. Behind the counter stood Mrs. 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 tray of food still untouched. "It was stage fright, I guess. I wanted to say something, but it wouldn't come out."
Several minutes and several guests later, the metal door rolled down. And Obama came into the dining room.
The crowd applauded. She told them times were hard, but they would get better. Then she called on people in America to volunteer at kitchens or donate food. She thanked the volunteers for filling a need.
A man in green told her, "America has spoken."
A man in white told her, "I'm a volunteer here."
"Thank you," Obama said.
A woman in a black sweater with an orange scarf hanging over a very full belly shook Obama's hand.
"When are you due?" Obama asked.
"Three weeks," the woman said.
"Looks like you are breezing through it," Obama said.
A homeless man in a biker jersey told her he would ride across America to raise money for the homeless. "A dollar a mile. Is the White House good for a dollar a mile?" he asked.
"Yes," Obama said, and asked him to talk to her assistant.
"I got people," she joked.
A man in a red sweater in a wheel chair rolled up. "Four more years, guaranteed," he said.
"You think so?" Obama asked.
Man in green sweater: "You really are tall."
"I am tall," Obama said.
After shaking, hands, she smiled and walked back through the kitchen.
And the guests stood behind in the hope that she left behind.
Samuel Hinton, 52, a Vietnam Veteran, who says he has been homeless three or four years, said he was impressed with the first lady. "I liked what she did. To come down here in our world.... There have been a lot of first ladies. But none ever touched base like this."
Hinton says he sleeps on the streets because the shelters are a danger to him and he a danger to them. "I could snap at any day being in that environment. I just stay on the street or wherever I can sit."
Hinton said he got a chance to shake Obama's hand.
"She asked, 'Are you doing okay?'"
"I said, 'No, ma'am. Honestly, I'm not doing okay.'"
"She said, 'Hang in there. It will get better.'"
"Her assistant took my name and number."
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