SEATTLE — Chef Will Parr is serving an autumn lunch of salmon chowder, corn on the cob, and green salad. The outdoor setting isn’t glamorous — under I-5 in downtown Seattle, demarcated by hurricane fencing — but an appreciative crowd of about 75 gathers. Regulars notice new faces and invite them to cut to the front of the line.
This is nonprofit Operation Sack Lunch’s outdoor meal site, run in conjunction with the City of Seattle, where free meals are available for the homeless 365 days a year.
Parr says that he himself could easily be on the other side of the table, in line.
“I’ve had my trials and tribulations,” he says. He’d always been in and out of kitchens: “It’s always been close to my heart.” But he struggled with addiction and ended up in jail. When he got out, his work experience wasn’t great, but a woman sitting next to him on the bus noticed the “shoddy little résumé in my hand.” She asked him if he was looking for a job; she was the head chef at the late Broadway Grill. “They took a chance on me,” Parr says. He ended up working there for five years, never missing a shift. “It was the first time I felt I could be a part of, not apart from,” he says. “Transformation is possible.” By the time he left, he was the kitchen manager.
Then, he says, it was time to give back, working to help people via Operation Sack Lunch, as he’d been helped himself by similar agencies in his times of need. “This place is born out of love,” he says, standing underneath the freeway.
Operation Sack Lunch began in the kitchen of founder Beverly Graham. A singer-songwriter and former bodybuilder, Graham had a multiple-sclerosis attack that almost killed her. Afterward, she couldn’t stop thinking about the people she saw struggling every day in Seattle — and she didn’t want to wait any longer for someone else to do something about it. She made some sack lunches, took them to Pioneer Square, and handed them out.
Now, 27 years later, Operation Sack Lunch has served more than 5.5 million meals to those in need. It operates on the principle that everybody has the right to nutrition — that good, healthful food is not a privilege. A corollary tenet: That right should come “without hearing other people’s dogma,” Graham says. “Absolutely no evangelism.”
Along with the outdoor meal site, OSL provides food for 24 other programs — like shelters for women, children, young adults, and everyone, including “wet houses, which means the people are not clean and sober.” The acronym has a second meaning, according to Operation Sack Lunch’s website: Only Serving Love, not judgment.
That love comes, as much as possible, in the form of organic food, and OSL researches how farmworkers are treated and whether animals are ethically raised. Graham speaks of attentiveness to real nourishment versus the empty calories that are often what’s available to the homeless, of mindfulness about diabetes and gluten intolerance. “We meet the food groups, and then go beyond that,” she says.
Operation Sack Lunch’s meals don’t come in a sack anymore. At their Compass Center kitchen — the largest of the organization’s five kitchen sites, it’s still cramped, maybe 500 square feet — operations manager Camille Faulkner points out that while it may seem counterintuitive, it’s actually easier and more cost-effective to make big quantities of hot food than to assemble thousands of sandwiches. It also allows them to make use of donations from local restaurants and markets. In a carefully orchestrated, temperature-controlled-and-tested daily dance, OSL’s drivers pick up more than 1,500 pounds of food a week that would otherwise go to waste from the likes of Daniel’s Broiler, Munchery and more.
Sometimes menus end up including wild-caught salmon, filet mignon, artisan bread. The chefs love the challenge of seeing what’s come in and turning it into hundreds of meals — as a whole, OSL makes 1,200 to 1,800 daily. “It’s like ‘Chopped’ every day here!” chef Shawn Iliff says. In the Compass Center kitchen, he’s zesting lemons for rosemary chicken. He worked for Tom Douglas at the Dahlia Lounge and Etta’s before becoming the chef de cuisine at Ballard’s Hotel Albatross. Then he decided to “do something different, that would be better for the world.”
On a kitchen wall, someone’s taped up a bunch of fliers for a band called Smashie Smashie. Faulkner says, laughing, “That’s Eric’s monument to himself.” She means chef Eric Bacon; his résumé includes Monsoon and Ba Bar. He came to OSL via the Occupy movement, after the Broadway and Pine encampment asked the organization for food, and OSL said sure, if you send some volunteers to help prepare it. Bacon was one of them, five years ago. He ended up staying. “We’re given a lot of creative freedom to flourish here,” he says. Faulkner says other OSL chefs — around a dozen total — have come from the armed forces, Bastyr University, Farestart.
Operation Sack Lunch has had trials and tribulations of its own recently. “It’s been a really rough couple of months,” Graham says. Their beloved head chef, Paul Nicolosi, passed away this fall — by all accounts, a tremendous loss for everyone. One of their three refrigerated trucks bit the dust around the same time — a mere practical matter, but an unignorable one. Fundraising for a new truck, as well as for a long hoped-for mobile kitchen, is under way.
Volunteers are always needed, at the outdoor meal site and in the kitchens. Right now, Faulkner says, they could use some more sign-ups for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. “It’s really fun and really festive,” she promises, and kids are welcome to come and pitch in. It’s not hard — it’s only serving love.