Lunch program hangs on for the homeless it serves

Beverly Graham gets about four hours of sleep a night, eats standing up to multi-task and often works out of her car.

She has a home in Clinton, where she lives with her husband and three children, but admits she’s only there on a rare occasion.

“It’s whatever I can shove into the day,” she said.

On Tuesday morning Graham, the founder of the nonprofit OPERATION: Sack Lunch, or OSL, stood in the center of a Seattle elementary school cafeteria with a guitar strapped over her shoulder and about 20 kids crowded around her feet. After rehearsing several songs with the children for an upcoming benefit concert at Benaroya Hall, Graham was busy discussing menus for OSL’s upcoming meals.

With dwindling donations, OSL has been forced to downsize the amount of meals they serve to the homeless and working poor every week. With a fundraising concert planned for Friday, Graham hopes it will spark an increase in financial good fortunes to keep the program afloat after a year of poor fiscal health.

OSL serves breakfast, lunch and a mid-afternoon snack five days a week to approximately 50 students who attend the First Place School in Seattle. In exchange for use of the school’s kitchen facility, OSL prepares and provides the children’s meals. The organization also uses the kitchen to make lunches that are transported downtown and served to homeless men, woman and children several days a week.

First Place School is an independent school utilized primarily by homeless children in Seattle. Graham said the importance of a healthy meal is immeasurable for many of the children. She said the children live with their families in shelters, in vehicles or on the street. She believes that with the stresses that come with being homeless, being able to eat is not one the children should have to worry about.

“For some of the kids, it’s all the food they get,” she said. “We’re the only nutrition these kids have.”

Graham, a professional singer whose social values often show up in her work, started OSL in 1989 from her own kitchen in Kirkland, making 30 lunches a day to hand out downtown. Inspired to do more than sing about the social issues facing society, she found volunteers to help her expand the organization. In 2003, OSL served 182,000 meals.

“It stopped being about me and it started being about them,” she said.

Graham was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis about the time OSL began, but neither MS nor a move to Whidbey Island in 1993 have slowed her. She even works from her bed when she’s not feeling well.

She travels to the First Place School almost daily from Whidbey Island and wears many hats for the program. In addition to being OSL’s executive director, she’s also the “executive floor scrubber,” a meal planner, grant writer, event planner and fundraiser. OSL’s small crew of volunteers and employees has been whittled down in the past year due to decreased funding. The operation has five part-time employees, who combined, earn 3.25 full-time wages.

“There are no divas at this organization,” Graham said. “We all do everybody’s job.”

Singing for the suppers to go to very many

Graham said the idea to sing with the children at First Place School came naturally.

“I figured I was here, I might as well start a choir,” she said.

On Tuesday the children’s faces beamed back to Graham while they clapped their hands and emulated her actions while they sang along. In addition to being an inspiration for her musically, Graham said working with the children encourages and motivates her for the perpetual fundraising required to keep OSL running.

“If it’s just one...” she began and paused to blink back the tears brimming in her eyes.

“These kids give it to me everyday — they drop patches of light on me everyday,” she said.

With a 42-percent drop in individual donations to the organization in 2004, Graham said First Place School meals are among just a few OSL has not been forced to cut. The costs of the vans used to transport the food downtown and back from foodbanks, the high costs of liability insurance that comes with feeding people, and staff wages all require money. In 2003, the program raised approximately $384,000; this year $260,000 has come in.

“I make the money as I go along,” Graham said. “Everybody’s having to suck in their belts.”

In addition to closing three kitchens and cutting about four full-time positions, the program has been forced to stop serving to Tent City, PSKS (Peace on the Streets by Kids from the Streets), a day shelter for women, Labor Ready of Seattle and the Gethsemane Referral Center. This represents a cutback of about 14,000 meals a month.

Currently OSL serves about 18,000 meals a month, including the three daily meals for the First Place School, lunchtime meals in downtown Seattle and meals for an evening transitional support group.

Hunger on the streets

Before OSL’s van had made it to a serving location on Fourth and Cherry streets in Seattle Tuesday, over 30 hungry people had already lined up to wait for lunch. Just as the children at First Place School inspire Graham, the people who come for a lunch downtown are what keep her going. Some are so significant they now work as OSL’s paid employees, having been plucked straight from the program’s lunch line.

“Some of them have more courage in a day than I have in a lifetime,” Graham said.

Kirkland resident Dave Matthews, also known as “Chef Dave” to the children at First Place School, is just one of three OSL chefs. Having previously been a restaurant owner, he said the opportunity to cook for OSL was an easy decision after being laid off from Boeing.

“It’s just so fulfilling,” he said. “Nobody should go hungry in this country – it just doesn’t make sense.”

OSL receives about 12,000 pounds of food a year from donors including Food Lifeline, Northwest Harvest, The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TFAP) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. OSL is the link that many homeless need, transporting, cooking and distributing the food. Graham said visiting a food bank is not an option for the homeless, who have no means to store or prepare the food they receive.

Since its humble beginnings, OSL has grown to become the largest and only health department compliant outdoor food server for the homeless in Washington. It’s organic and nutritional meals far exceed health department standards, according to Graham.

For a Seattle homeless man Rick Garner, OSL meals are an essential part of his week. He has been homeless for about four years, after losing his job as an insurance agent.

“Sometimes you have 300 people here,” Garner said and gestured to the line of people behind him waiting for a meal. “A lot of the people here are just stressed out and can’t deal with the stuff in their lives.”

A 29-year-old man, who wished to remain anonymous, said he visits the Fourth and Cherry location daily for OSL and other meals provided by non-profit organizations also served there.

“This is all my source of food,” he said. “If it’s not here, it makes a lot of difference.”

In addition to the lack of funding, Graham said the face of homelessness has also changed since the program began 15 years ago. She said the types of people OSL served on the street went from being mostly men from the ages of 18 to 55, to being a mixture of men, woman and children. She said some people — like senior citizens who can afford to rent a room for themselves — cannot afford food as well.

“They’re like my mom walking through the line — and that’s upsetting,” Graham said. “Homelessness affects people of all incomes and all education levels.”

Graham hopes the benefit concert will provide the emotional and monetary boost to get the program off to a great start in 2005. She hopes OSL they can regain enough momentum to reestablish the meals it was forced to shut down. After OSL stopped serving at several of its meal sites this summer, Graham said two shelters had notified them their lines had increased by 300 people daily, and they had been forced to turn people away for a lack of food.

While waiting to eat Tuesday, Rick Garner pointed to many people in line who had benefited from OSL donations, including clothes, sleeping bags and hygiene kits.

“A lot of people look forward to Sack Lunch,” he said. “It’s very important.”

According to Graham, OSL can benefit from many types of volunteers or donors. One South Whidbey resident recently donated 200 handmade hats she had knitted, while local service and youth organizations often donated their time or funds raised for the effort. She also said volunteers for OSL’s board are also needed and donations are graciously accepted.

It’s moments like after one person tells them the organization OSL saved their life or gave them dignity and reenforcement in their most dire situations that make the commute, long hours and short nights worth the effort.

“No matter what we do there’s always somebody to teach you to be more human,” Graham said.

A choir from the First Place School in Seattle will perform at OPERATION: Sack Lunch’s benefit concert Dec. 3 at Benaroya Hall. In addition to being the executive director of OSL, Beverly Graham takes on the role of choir director for the morning Tuesday.

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