Does this sound like a soup kitchen?
At the entrance, Maggie Mae Brown is greeted by a host. Once she’s seated, a waiter takes her order – oven-baked chicken with steamed potatoes and iced tea. Her meal is brought to her table, and once she’s finished, the waiter clears her dishes.
Yes, this is the Kansas City Community Kitchen, just east of downtown Kansas City, Mo., where anybody can go for a free midday meal Monday through Friday. Ms. Brown lives in a transitional housing facility as she tries to move from homelessness to economic independence, and eating several times a week at the KCCK is key to helping her stretch her paycheck and achieve her goal of having her own place to live.
“I love it,” Brown says. “The food is healthy. The people really care. You don’t feel homeless here. They don’t stigmatize you.”
The KCCK was established in the 1980s by Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral and has been under the auspices of Episcopal Community Services since 2005. But it wasn’t until Beau Heyen became ECS’s president and chief executive officer in August 2015 that a transformation began. Mr. Heyen arrived in the city with a fresh outlook on addressing hunger and related issues, and he and his staff have promoted the idea of “dining with dignity.” The KCCK switched to the restaurant-style approach early this year.
“The Kansas City Community Kitchen has been serving emergency food for more than 30 years, but this new style of service really represents what we are about now,” Heyen says. “We’ve gotten rid of the long lines and the cafeteria trays.”
The KCCK makes 350 to 375 meals per day, including about 75 meals that aren’t served on the main premises. At the central location, guests can choose from two or three entrees. Heyen plans to have a set seasonal menu with as many as 10 choices by next summer. In addition, the KCCK is emphasizing healthy food, including fresh produce – salad and fruit are usually available – and shelf-stable products that aren’t high in sodium.
The KCCK is partially staffed by students in ECS’s culinary program, a 30-week immersive program for adults trying to turn their lives around.
“Now our guests not only get delicious and healthy meals cooked by our culinary team, but they get some choice in what they eat that day,” Heyen notes.
More meals, less crime
By every measure, the new restaurant-style model has been a success. Since it was rolled out in February, the number of meals served has increased 8 percent each month. With a host and waiters circulating in the dining room, the criminal activity that plagues many soup kitchens has all but disappeared. Whereas food pantries tend to be patronized mainly by women and soup kitchens mainly by men, the KCCK has a nice mix of both.
“We’re seeing that people feel safe here,” Heyen says. “We work really hard to create that environment.”
The change in format and the focus on healthy and appealing food have been so popular that the regulars have dubbed the place “Club 750,” after the KCCK’s street address of 750 Paseo Boulevard.
“When it comes to the work of the KCCK, its success is not necessarily measured by the quantity of food we serve or the number of people we serve,” says the Rev. R. Stan Runnels, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and Day School in Kansas City and a member of the ECS board of directors. “It’s really measured by this new understanding of how we serve those in need and how we are in relation to the people we serve. By that measure, Beau has changed the ... conversation for all of our ministries in food. In my opinion, he’s bringing that change to bear on the whole of Kansas City.”
A graduate of the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Heyen also has degrees in psychology and educational guidance and counseling. He worked extensively in anti-poverty services and hunger relief in Houston and also did a stint as chief operating officer and chief development officer for Masbia, a network of kosher soup kitchens and food pantries in New York City.
He traces his passion for food and community to growing up in Seward, a small town in Nebraska, and working in his grandmother’s restaurant. She was Mennonite, although Heyen was raised Methodist.
“I joke that the best way to learn something is to learn it under your Mennonite grandmother,” he says. “She really taught me a lot about food and family, and the community that is built over food.”
Heyen is committed to tackling the interconnected problems of hunger, homelessness, and poverty. Under his leadership, ECS has conducted three “hunger summits” in different parts of the Kansas City metropolitan area, and four more are planned to take place within a year. He is also a leading advocate in addressing the issues of workforce development and community-building.
“There aren’t enough superlatives to describe the energy that Beau has brought to the community, and the way that he’s integrated hunger issues and food issues into the overall issue of ending systemic poverty,” says Vickie Riddle, executive director of the Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness. “Beau isn’t just trying to feed people a meal. He’s working with the community organizations and agencies that are dealing with the systemic issues of homelessness. He has initiated connections and program changes that are going to be very effective in helping people break the cycle of poverty.”
The KCCK has a $3.2 million annual budget, which includes in-kind donations, and Heyen is responsible for raising about $1 million a year. The funds come from a variety of sources such as local foundations, church partners, and individual contributors. The federal government supplies $5,000.
Heyen hopes to be serving breakfast by the end of this year and is looking into starting a weekend program. He is also exploring the possibility of opening similar “dining with dignity” emergency-food restaurants in five other locations across the metropolitan area in the next few years.
“We’re going to be leading a movement here that says that food is the most basic human right,” he says. “It’s very common for people to give up food first when they are faced with other trauma in their lives. If we don’t eat, we can’t function and we can’t be a part of society. Food is the most important thing we can give someone if we want them to move forward in life.”
The role of volunteers
While the restaurant model does not significantly increase the cost per meal, it greatly increases the need for volunteers to cook and serve. That means between 20 and 25 volunteers per day. For Heyen, the many volunteers contribute to the community-building effort, in which people from various walks of life come together for a common purpose.
About half the volunteers each day are students from schools in the region. For educators like Mr. Runnels, the restaurant model creates an attractive place to send young people to fulfill service requirements – a place where volunteers are not just dishing out food from behind a counter, but are interacting with those they are serving. Every Friday, a group of sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders from St. Paul’s serves at the KCCK.
“Our students are learning the dignity of all human beings,” Runnels says. “They are getting to have human-to-human interaction, and that’s going to have a consequence in their own moral formation. Beau has given us one more tool to help us with that.”
“This isn’t just a kitchen,” Heyen says, summing up the KCCK and his own approach to food advocacy. “This is a transformative space where we’re trying to teach something to everyone who walks in here.”
How to take action
UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups aiding children and communities:
Adopt International has adoption placement services and also focuses on children remaining in institutional care. Take action: Donate to the Healthy Family Program, which offers post-adoption services.
Water Engineers for the Americas lends hydro-engineering expertise so Latin American communities have sustainable potable water systems and sanitation. Take action: Contribute to funds for rebuilding a water system in Yajalón, Mexico.