Dinner for 90?
No Problem for These Volunteers

It's Friday afternoon. More than 30 gallons of black beans, 15 lbs. of potatoes, 12 heads of lettuce, and piles of assorted fruit are heaped on the kitchen table. Sinan Demirel and Adria Scharf scan the pile, pondering how to turn the groceries into a tasty meal. "Burritos?" offers Scharf. "Hmmm, maybe," responds Demirel. "But I wish we had some meat here."

An hour before dinner, Adrtia Scharf (far left) and other volunteers are putting the final touches on a salad for the Friday night Homeless Feed.
In a few hours, nearly 90 hungry souls will appear at the door, ready to eat what Demirel and Scharf decide to cook. The same scenario has played out every Friday night since March 1996, when Demirel and Scharf, both graduate students in the Department of Sociology, organized their first Friday Night Homeless Feed at University Baptist Church in Seattle's University District. Dozens of volunteers have helped carry it on, many of them sociology graduate students as well.

"We started thinking about this around Thanksgiving 1995," explains Scharf. "We had envisioned cooking meals out of our homes and distributing them to the homeless downtown--an informal arrangement. But other activists told us that people really prefer a safe place to eat with a roof over their heads. We decided this was the best approach."

Evidently so. Although the group occasionally posts fliers about the Friday night meals, word-of-mouth has proven even more effective. "It was an avalanche effect," says Scharf, recalling the early response. "We used to average between 50 to 60 people each week," adds Demirel. "Now it's up to 80 or 90 people. I'm sure we had more than 100 at Thanksgiving."

Preparing for such a crowd takes time. A volunteer picks up donated food from various sources each Friday morning and delivers it to the church's basement kitchen. Demirel and Scharf arrive around 2 p.m. to survey the ingredients and plan a menu that includes a main dish, a side starch, a vegetable dish, a salad, fresh bread, and usually a dessert. Other volunteers arrive in shifts throughout the afternoon and evening to prepare, serve, and clean up the meal. The volunteers are usually out the door by 9 p.m.

"It's fun," says Scharf. "A lot of times we have music going while we're cooking. It becomes a social hour as well as work time. And we always pull together something that's healthy and tasty. We get no complaints."

It helps that Demirel once ran a restaurant and both Demirel and Scharf have worked on homeless issues. In fact, Demirel's graduate research focused on the homeless--until he began the Friday Night Homeless Feed. "As I got more into this project, it felt exploitive to be doing research in the same area," he explains. "So I changed my research focus. I may go back to studying these issues and may use these experiences in some way, but for now I've quit taking notes. I just enjoy feeding people."

What Demirel and fellow volunteers enjoy less is the behind-the-scenes work necessary to acquire donated food. It is the one aspect of the project that has become an increasingly worrisome challenge. Small grocers tend to be the best source, providing produce and other edibles. But the recent closure of several groceries, coupled with changes in government surplus commodities distribution, has severely limited the group's food supply.

"We have little control over what we get," says Demirel. "Last week, we got no meat at all but we got 700 cans of applesauce. We have to be creative. And when necessary, volunteers head to a nearby grocery store to purchase other ingredients."

Despite these challenges, the group continues to find their weekly effort immensely satisfying. Demirel and Scharf, having spent literally thousands of hours on this project, hope that others will soon take over leadership of the Feed, but they plan to remain involved indefinitely.

"I think I've gotten as much out of it as I've put in," says Scharf. "It's personally satisfying, and for me it's also a political activity in a way. It means different things to different people, but it has become an important part of all of our lives."

Want to help with the Friday Night Homeless Feed? Contact Sinan Demirel at sdemirel@u.washington.edu or (206) 726-4289.

[Winter 1998 - Table of Contents]