Feed the Need

What is soup kitchen food like?

Dallas cares. It really does.

Voters approved $3 million to fund an assistance center for the homeless. The city just can't decide where to put the new facility, that's all. In January, city officials asked organizations intent on feeding the hungry to confine their activities to the Day Resource Center, which closes at 7 p.m., rather than meet the homeless where they actually congregate. Then the city council delayed a vote on a proposal to eradicate hunger and homelessness.

At least they moved quickly on more serious concerns, agreeing that the planned assistance center must sit at least 1,000 feet from the homes and schools of God-fearing, gainfully employed Dallas residents.

Like we said, Dallas gives a shit.

It's kinda like the time "Dugout Doug" MacArthur ordered his troops not to liberate starving Allied POWs from Japanese camps until he arrived on the scene for a few photo ops. And it's the sort of thing that irks Stephan Pyles, the city's premier celebrity chef.

"We are so oblivious as a public," he says. Roughly 375,000 people in North Texas live below the poverty line, according to some reports, and at least 6,000 line up at various soup kitchens every single day. "We have a vision of what the world is like, but it's really not like that."

To find out what it's like and to answer this week's question (and, quite honestly, to get in some proactive community service), the Burning Question crew joined up with Pyles and Action Jaxon of 97.9 the Beat to check out a couple of soup kitchens. Before moving to Dallas, Jaxon spent a few destitute weeks living on the streets and now sleeps in a shelter at least one week a year in order to raise awareness. Pyles co-founded HungerLink as a way to collect food for the needy.

"People can do something--money, time," Jaxon says of his efforts. "I don't have money, so I give time."

We trekked over to the Stewpot, a downtown soup kitchen associated with the First Presbyterian Church, and to the AIDS Resource Center, whose members must rank 300 percent below poverty level and be HIV or AIDS patients. Dozens of other agencies serve the homeless or working poor, and various organizations--from church groups to Phil Romano's Hunger Busters--bring hot or cold meals directly to those in need.

These are massive undertakings held together by fraying shoestrings. The AIDS Resource Center spends more than $200,000 a year on ingredients, pulling half of its budget from federal funds, sure, but half from private donations. Hunger Busters runs a truck to selected service points throughout the city after picking up freshly made food from Eatzi's and Nick & Sam's. Operating one night a week for a year costs $45,000, but they try three trips each week. "Our goal is to expand to five nights a week," says Tina Williams, Hunger Busters' executive director, "so I dial for dollars on Tuesdays." Many organizations depend upon the North Texas Food Bank, a longstanding nonprofit agency procuring donated and surplus food for a network of more than 400 soup kitchens and pantries throughout the area. Their efforts account for close to 550,000 meals every month.

Meanwhile, the Stewpot must find at least 40 gallons of milk each day and food for 500 or more. They've served elk, emu, ostrich and anything else people send along. Recently a supplier donated 17 cases of live crawfish, which staff member and cook Brenda Roberts traded for staple items.

"It's unbelievable some of the things that come our way," she says.

So, anyway: The Stewpot's cook thought one of our crew looked a little like Stephan Pyles. "I'm not," Pyles replied.

"Oh, that's good," she said. "He's not my favorite."

Yep, the guy who invented Southwestern cuisine, earning accolades around the world, gets shunned at a soup kitchen.

We thought it hilarious--until he revealed his identity and the staff retaliated by making us work, filling trays and glasses for 484 people in one hour. Despite the occasional emu burger, the Stewpot generally serves basic meals. In this case a decent beef stew, two slices of bread, a Pop Tart and milk. It's a fast-paced setting: The dining room seats about 100, so diners must scamper as soon as they finish. Volunteers rush around, cleaning trays, running glasses through the dishwasher (not enough to go around) and refilling drinks--Jaxon's job, in this case. They placed Pyles in the kitchen, which we thought somehow unfair.

Fortunately, Pyles kept his mouth shut over at the AIDS Resource Center, so no one put us to work. Instead, chef Joe Rubio laid out salad, soup, veggies and chicken. While the Stewpot averages more than 500 for lunch, Rubio deals with about 150 clients a day in a more relaxed and convivial atmosphere. The challenge here is not rapid service and basic nutrition, but to create truly appetizing meals. "If they eat, they put on weight and get invigorated; their T cells go up," he says. Rubio also mixes a protein powder into some of the menu items.

He came to Dallas after a stint as Barry Bonds' personal chef. Or so we assume.

We were impressed by the quality of meals served at the two soup kitchens. Well, OK, sliced bread and Pop Tarts are nasty Atkins nightmares, but the stuff made from scratch was quite good. The Stewpot's beef stew rivaled home-cooked versions while our meal at the AIDS Resource Center topped most chain restaurants.

"It was night and day, the difference between Friday's and Star Canyon," Pyles says of the two kitchens. "It's a different audience and a different experience, and yet it's still about hunger."

And, just like any restaurant in Dallas, it's also about cranking out a good meal in a short time to a crowded room. The only differences: Chefs depend on donations, much of the staff volunteer their time, and the only people who appreciate your efforts are the very people the city prefers to nudge off to the side, where nobody will notice.

"There are so many shelters here," Jaxon concludes. "People need help; the shelters need help."

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