Only Serving Love

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Operation Sack Lunch rescues food that would otherwise be tossed, and creates nourishing meals for the city’s most vulnerable citizens.

STORY BY MEGAN HILL • PHOTOS BY AUDREY KELLY

Nearly 30 years ago, Beverly Graham had a wake-up call. The professional singer-songwriter and former bodybuilder had a multiple-sclerosis attack that she says led to a “life-and-death moment.”

“One day, as I was recovering, I drove downtown and handed out 30 organic lunches to make myself feel better about what my contribution to the universe was,” she says. “And it wasn’t necessarily going to be a lifelong commitment.”

Beverly started Operation Sack Lunch (OSL) in 1989 to continue her meal-service mission. She funded it first through her earnings as a musician, and then by taking out a second mortgage on her house.

OSL today is quite the enterprise. With a staff of 25 people — chefs, truck drivers, and office personnel, spread across five kitchens — the nonprofit serves meals every day at a massive outdoor meal site at 6th and Columbia streets, run in conjunction with the City of Seattle. OSL provides meals at 24 other sites — shelters, transitional housing facilities, and support centers — in the city. Over its history, OSL has served more than 5.5 million meals to people in need in Seattle. Several employees are former clients.

The organization has a vast network of partnerships that constitutes a massive food pipeline from which the meals are prepared. Catering operations, restaurants, and other meal services — 67 in total — send unused food, still perfectly edible, to OSL’s kitchens.

OSL chefs visit meal sites to interact with clients, building empathy for the people they serve.

From high-end restaurants like The Capital Grille to juice company Odwalla, OSL knits together meals from ingredients that come in the door from a dizzying array of sources. American Seafoods last year provided some $30,000 worth of seafood, Beverly says. Food delivery service Munchery donates about 800 pounds of food a week. Last year alone, OSL “rescued” more than 900,000 pounds of food and turned it into 541,000 no-cost, hot meals. If OSL can’t use any part of its inventory, it reallocates product to 23 partnering organizations.

Some of this food is predictably donated each week; sometimes, random food from, say, a catering party that saw a lower-than-expected turnout, will call unexpectedly.

Occasionally, OSL has to purchase food to fill the gaps and to secure necessities like seasonings and cooking oil. A central tenet of OSL’s ethos is that “nutritional excellence is a right we are born to, not a privilege we earn.” And that means the organization purchases only organic and humanely-raised foods from trusted sources that OSL carefully researches. OSL believes its clients shouldn’t be victims of a stratified food system that prices organic, pesticide- and hormone-free foods at significantly higher prices than conventional items, allowing those who can afford to pay more to benefit, and those who can’t, to suffer.

That decision impacts the budget, but it’s worth the extra fundraising effort.

“We run on the ethic that the people who are most compromised in our neighborhoods should be the people who are fed from the top of the shelf, not the bottom,” Beverly says.

“We want people to thrive, not just survive,” says Operations Manager Camille Faulkner. “We’re not going to put money into an industry that hurts people when our goal is to heal people.”

OSL always offers alternatives that are respectful of dietary restrictions, from kosher meals and vegetarian to low-sugar, nut-free, and gluten-free options. And it’s respectful of religious freedoms, too; though OSL frequently works with volunteers from local churches, there’s no evangelization involved in exchange for a meal. It all plays into OSL’s other tagline: Only Serving Love.

Meal development is a complex process, even when the chefs know which ingredients they’ll be working with each day. Some 1,000 to 7,000 pounds of food makes its way into the OSL kitchens every day, and from that, chefs must produce balanced meals that consider a multitude of restrictions.

That’s the sort of challenge that OSL Lead Chef Shawn Iliff relishes. Shawn was hired in October after the death of longtime head chef Paul Nicolosi, a loss that hit the organization hard.

Shawn was working at trendy bar and restaurant Hotel Albatross in Ballard when he saw the job opening. “I thought it might be a good chance to do something better with my time,” he says. Though OSL’s work is demanding and can often stretch the limits of any chef’s creativity, it’s clearly rewarding. “I’m continually awestruck,” Shawn says. “We really do touch a lot of people.”

Last year they served 541,000 hot meals at no cost to clients.

Shawn and Camille oversee the five kitchens, including the biggest — and the organization’s first — at the Compass Center, a transitional housing program in Pioneer Square. The kitchen there provides meals for Compass Center residents, the outdoor meal site, and several other locations.

When I visit, it’s a deceptively low-key day; volunteers and chefs are preparing tuna salad sandwiches, a salad, and chicken noodle soup (complete with a vegetarian version). Because the tuna takes minimal preparation, the kitchen is a bit more relaxed than usual, though the burners and ovens and prep tables will churn out between 3,000 to 5,000 meals before the day is over. Things pick up as deliveries roll in: 70 pounds of braised beef necks from The Capital Grille, packages of shrimp, and mashed potatoes.

It’s a struggle to fit it all into the already chaotic and mostly full walk-in cooler, and Shawn is pitching ideas to the other chefs for how to put the new items to use. Knowing he has tortillas and peppers, he says fajitas might be a good use for the beef necks. Then there are the cartons of soymilk in green tea and coffee flavors — not exactly your typical pantry ingredients. Shawn and Camille table a discussion over their use to turn to more immediate needs.

Shawn says his process for creating meals each day starts with looking at what protein is available: usually beef or chicken. From there, he delves into the vegetable supply, and then, a supporting cast of grains, pastas, and other ingredients, and begins to knit together a meal.

“I like to ask my chefs, ‘What country are we going to today?’” Shawn says of his meals. “It’s always different, always fun.” Improvisation is often necessary when traditional ingredients aren’t available. Recently, Shawn says, a chef made a cherry cheesecake with a cornflake cereal crust. “It turned out fantastic.”

And there’s one final but critical aspect of OSL’s service. Rather than remain separated behind kitchen walls from the people they’re serving — as they would be in a restaurant — OSL’s chefs interact with their clients, taking turns visiting meal sites and getting to know the people in the lines.

“There’s a level of interface and empathy, and it changes the way you think about that population,” Camille says. “There’s an aspect of caring for people who are in the direst circumstances of their lives. It’s an important interaction for our clients, and it might be the only time in their day when someone looks them in the eye.

Megan Hill freelances for a number of food and travel publications. When she’s not writing, she can be found enjoying the beauty of the Pacific Northwest via sailboat or hiking trail.

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