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Operation Sack Lunch

Joshua McNichols

First responders in Seattle say they're ready for today's big snowstorm. That includes nonprofit organizations that feed the homeless. Their freezers and pantries are stocked; their delivery vans have chains. But they're not worried about the snow — they're worried about politics. KUOW's Joshua McNichols has more.


There's a kitchen in the shadow of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. It's called Operation Sack Lunch. It cranks out 1,200 meals a day for homeless people: breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Eric Richards Bacon is one of the sous chefs. He's busy arranging his knives on a countertop.

Richards Bacon: "It's cooking for sport. It's fun. It's like 'Iron Chef' every time I get to walk in. There's certain foods that we get to purchase, and there's certain foods that come in from donations. So when you walk in, your secret ingredient could be, you know, whatever. Today, we're doing chicken breast, so that's what we're working with."

This time, there's another major variable in the mix: snow. Usually, the evening meal is handled by another provider. But the mere threat of snow has scared them off. So Operation Sack Lunch stepped in.

There's not enough time to pull together a complicated meal. The chicken breasts are still frozen solid.

So Richards Bacon asked his two AmeriCorps volunteers to thaw them out in a sink full of cold water.

As Richards Bacon works on dinner, another sous chef loads up a van with lunch. His name is Taran Graham. He's the son of the kitchen's founder. He's been helping out in one way or another since he was nine.

Graham: "Ah, that's the worst — when I'm leaving the kitchen late."

Graham says even when he's late, people are still grateful for the food.

Graham: "It makes it a joy to come to work everyday. And that may seem a little odd considering the clients that I feed. But I'd rather do this than work in a restaurant."

Graham drives slowly up the steep hill to a little fenced area under the freeway at 6th and Columbia. It's called the Seattle Outdoor Meal Site. About 100 men and six women stand patiently in line, waiting for the free food.

A young man with a thick orange beard stands with his hands in his pockets. He says his name is Scott. He grew up in Kirkland. Now he sleeps in a doorway downtown.

Scott: "Well, I guess I'm considered the new type of homelessness person because I have a college degree. And I've been homeless around a year. And it's all about not being able to find a job and stuff."

Joshua McNichols: "So what kind of job did you have before?"

Scott: "Accounting. I worked at Washington Mutual."

McNichols: "Really? That's a good job!"

Scott: "It was! Until I got laid off in 2000."

Scott isn't worried about the predicted snowstorm. He says he has plenty of blankets. His reaction is typical of the people in line: They're not bothered by the cold. They're more worried about the Mayor's Office.

Seattle's director of human services wants to shut down the outdoor eating area at the end of February. Expressing her own opinion, she said it was not humane to serve hungry people in an outside setting.

That rankles the people standing in this food line, such as Mark Medina. He says the city just doesn't want to see homeless people. He accuses the city of hypocrisy.

Medina: "There's people selling crack right open in the daylight and at night at Chinatown, Belltown and everywhere between. And they want to shut down someone that's trying to feed you? That's kind of like — where's your priorities at, you know?"

After about half an hour, everyone has passed through the line. I found Sous Chef Taran Graham packing up the van.

McNicols: "So how'd it go?"

Graham: "It went excellently. We served about 135, so it was a good turnout. People are sad to hear us leaving."

McNichols: "What are you going to do when this place closes down?"

Graham: "I'm definitely going to still do the same job. I will essentially be turning into an activist. And I will probably be disobeying civil laws and serving food in a park where we don't necessarily have permission."

Graham says nothing can stop his organization from serving food to homeless people. Not the police, and certainly not a big snowstorm.

Operation Sack Lunch has asked the Mayor's Office to help find a more suitable location.

For KUOW, I'm Joshua McNichols.

© Copyright 2012, KUOW