Kansas City Offers Elevated Dining to Those in Need

The Kansas City Community Kitchen has taken things to a new level with a restaurant-like experience.
Executive chef Michael Curry. (Photo: Oli Sari/Episcopal Community Services/Facebook)
Mar 19, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Gionni Ponce is Participant Media’s Assistant of Advocacy and Social Impact.

Many Americans are critical of the homeless, according to Mandy Caruso-Yahne, director of community engagement at Episcopal Community Services in Kansas City, Missouri. “We have this mentality of ‘I would eat that sandwich if I was desperate.’ But desperation doesn’t mean that you still don’t have likes and dislikes,” Caruso-Yahne told TakePart. ECS is the parent organization of Kansas City Community Kitchen, where, for the first time in 30 years, they’ve adopted a new approach to soup kitchens.

On Feb. 5, the kitchen reopened, offering a restaurant-style experience. It aims to treat clients with the same respect shown to paying customers elsewhere. There’s no waiting in line to get a ticket in exchange for a cafeteria tray full of whatever food is available—there are servers and a community atmosphere like in any other restaurant but without the bill at the end.

The change came when Beau Heyen joined KCCK as president and CEO in November 2015. Having previously worked at Masbia, a restaurant-style kosher soup kitchen in New York City, he knew firsthand the impact this new model could have.

“It’s a dehumanizing experience to wait in line for so many things,” Caruso-Yahne said. “How nice would it be for us to offer them some choice and room to make their own decisions? There is power in that.”

According to the 2015 Point-in-Time Count for Kansas City, the city had 1,593 homeless people last year. That includes individuals in safe havens, transitional housing, rapid rehousing, emergency shelters, and individuals who are completely unsheltered. Of those people, 50 percent include families with women and children.

According to Vickie Riddle, executive director of the Homeless Services Coalition of Greater Kansas City, this goes against public perception of homelessness. “These aren’t all men who drink and do drugs,” she said. “These are families and women in peril because they’re on the streets.”

Though the numbers for the 2016 Point-in-Time Count haven’t been tallied, the HSCGKC is expecting a reduction, owing in large part to federal grants from the Support Services for Veteran Families program. “This year, we’re anticipating somewhere around 1,425 total homeless people,” Riddle told TakePart. “We’ve been afforded resources to help people get into situations where they can take care of themselves.”

For many of these people, it’s a guess where their next meal will come from, and the KCCK, which serves 200 lunches on an average day, is a community-oriented place to turn. Everyone is welcome to dine at the kitchen—and it isn’t just the homeless who visit. Though the KCCK doesn’t collect data, Caruso-Yahne knows many of its visitors are families and working poor who suffer from food insecurity and don’t have enough money “to make their dollar stretch to the end of the month.” In addition to those in need, the kitchen aims to build an “intentional community” by opening its doors to businesspeople, firefighters, and police officers. Beginning in April, the local police station will begin sending officers to eat at the kitchen.

All meals at the KCCK are carefully crafted and made healthy with homemade sauces—no bottled ketchup and barbecue sauce here—and whatever ingredients are available in the kitchen that day. Just a quick look at some of the menu items shows this is a new type of kitchen: roast leg of lamb, gravy currant, couscous, and cucumber salad. The delectable foods can be attributed to executive chef Michael Curry, who also owns a restaurant, Lil’ Bubba, in Kansas City and ate at soup kitchens throughout his life.

This kitchen, like others in Washington, D.C., and Fort Myers, Florida, hopes to provide more than an individual meal. The KCCK also offers six-month culinary training for those looking to gain new, marketable job skills. After completing the training, each participant will receive a paid internship in a partnered restaurant, and the KCCK will pay a portion of his or her salary.