As told to Lukas Volger
I have been in the food services industry since 1978. I’m a little bit older than I look. I went from waitress, to manager, to working in the kitchen. I’d been working with GMHC as a volunteer since the ’80s, and I sort of fell into this job from working for another organization. I found out that I’m good at it, I love it. The person who was here before me is the one who taught me so much about the kitchen.
The GMHC meals program began for people with HIV and AIDS to eat in a safe and non-judgmental place. Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, if people were visibly wasting, they weren’t welcome in restaurants and other venues. That’s how it got started. Today, we serve meals five days a week, Monday through Friday. Lunch Monday through Thursday, and Friday is dinner.
I’ll usually be here at 8 a.m. We have a very limited amount of staff, so we’re all hands on, setting up the room, getting it ready for the clients. We’re kind of like a MASH unit. Sometimes you get something thrown at you. The oven breaks. OK, we’re steaming a lot of food. It’s always a surprise. You’ll see me running out here with a mop a lot. There’s no such thing as just one job.
We serve anywhere from 250 to 400 meals a day. It consists of a meat, a fish, and a vegetarian dish. Then we have a salad bar — vegetables, tuna, lettuce, cheese, a variety of salad dressings — fresh fruit, and bread, always a whole grain bread. Chicken parmesan is the most popular meal, next to meatloaf. Our clients love meatloaf. If they don’t see meatloaf for two weeks, I won’t stop hearing about it. And I’ll tell you the secret ingredient. The secret ingredient is love — I love making it, but I don’t like eating it.
Clients love bold flavors, the flavors that are right in your face. I meet with the nutritionist here, who oversees the food pantry program — we have a dialogue about the food that’s the most healthful for them. The menus need to be low in sodium, so I created a spice mix that we use — it has granulated garlic, Spanish paprika, granulated onion, parsley, rosemary, thyme, oregano. It varies, I’ll change it month to month. I teach clients that there are other methods for making your food flavorful without adding salt. Lemon juice, too.
When you watch the room fill up, each table has a personality. One table, they meet every day for lunch, and they’ll spend the whole day sitting in here, having conversations. If it’s somebody’s birthday, they’ll celebrate their birthday at the table. There are little communities. This is what they do, they’ll spend the whole day here with each other before they go off. It’s nice. It’s a safe place to be.
Then I spend part of my day putting together menus. I have meetings with my staff — they’ll bring menus to the table that they want to try and we’ll play around to try to make it work. We like to take it up a notch, make it creative. We have a couple of food purveyors that we order from, and we get grants to pay for that. And then we have Food Bank. Today the Food Bank sent us eighty cases of food. We’ll get rid of it within the month. We go through it so quickly.
Each year we do two holiday meals, one is a Thanksgiving dinner the day before Thanksgiving, and then a holiday meal in December. There are clients who aren’t allowed in their families’ homes, or they’ve been written off because they’re a person living with HIV or AIDS and/or gay or transgender. It’s hard enough for anyone to get through the holidays, but it gets bumped up for them. All the emotions. This year we served just under 500 people for Thanksgiving, and over 500 for the holiday meal. It was amazing. Hors d’oeuvres, dinner, dessert. We have four seatings — 125 per seating, and then a standby line. Everybody eats.
Many of our clients have history of homelessness and hunger. There are times when we can’t offer seconds at lunch and dinner, so we always try and make the first round a worthwhile one. And because of the cuts in food stamps and some of our grants, and the high price of food today, we have a waiting list of about 300 people for our Keith Haring Food Pantry Program.
Every month I hold two cooking demos so that I can teach clients how best to use their pantry bags that we distribute through the food pantry program. Ultimately what we’d like to do is build a recipe book. It’s always geared toward the hot plate. Not everybody has the ability to cook in their apartment. In SRO [single room occupancy], it’s a hot plate, if anything, so we have to teach them along those lines.
The challenging part with my job is trying to please everyone. They’ll tell you what’s what. Every day I walk through the tables and talk to the clients and see how the food is. I have a client who can’t have tomato products, and one day I had two dishes with tomato in it. That was my mistake. He was upset. He and I actually bumped into each other on the bus later, and he was like, “I didn’t mean to get upset at you!” and I was like, “Dude, you’re fine!” I want to please people, and it’s the hardest thing to do.
The most gratifying part of my job, it’s kind of a sad part. We had a beautiful holiday party this year, the whole nine yards, everybody was so happy. I had one client, he hung back while the room cleared out, and he was in tears. I sat with him, and he cried on my shoulder for about ten minutes. It was so sad. But then he felt so much better. That. The clients, they come out of here, they say thank you for this — “Thank you so much for what you do.” They’re very, very appreciative of everything that we do here.
I had a brother who died of AIDS in 1983, but I didn’t find out till a year later that he’d passed. We all grew up in the system, and he was my oldest brother. He apparently had asked for me, and I wasn’t there. I do this work for him. Him, and for all these people who’ve become my friends, who are present and the ones who are no longer present. We have a memory wall for clients who’ve passed and sometimes it’s just so full. It breaks my heart to see that.
We offer so much at GMHC. I’ve already told my family: This is what I will retire from — but first I will go kicking and screaming, because I will never retire. I don’t consider it a job. I love what I do here. I love the people. It’s my second home. ///
Photo by Steve Viksjo