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Institutional Dining: People Serving People



Rodlyn Crawford, once a student in People Serving People’s food program, now works for the nonprofit organization.

In the vestibule and tiny front playground of 614 3rd Street South in Minneapolis, children are constantly at play, stopping occasionally to open the heavy double doors for their mothers to push baby strollers inside. Beyond the security desk and metal detectors, families disperse into various parts of the building, to try and create some semblance of a normal life without a place to call home. 

In the hulking, outdated building’s bowels, the lifeblood of the organization sits, in a drab cafeteria brightened by mural painted pillars. At 9 a.m., the kitchen is bustling with surprisingly few staff, preparing for their second meal service of the day, where up to 350 people might converge to receive their daily bread. They’ll repeat the process, seven days per week, 365 days a year, including all holidays. 

The majority of guests who stay and eat at People Serving People are children—63 percent. And, the average age is 6 years old. 

Michael Seiler has been running the food program at People Serving People for 31 years, long before it was called People Serving People, and The Drake Family Shelter, as it was called then, was run by recovering alcoholics who could stay for free at the shelter and receive a small stipend if they cooked. 

In tandem, Seiler ran the 410 Shelter, which also served an outside food line six nights a week. The majority of his product back then was government commodities like powdered eggs and canned beef. By the time 1993 hit, and financial subsidies for his programs went down to nil, he was unable to purchase any product to supplement those commodities. 

“I had to get very creative with canned meat,” he says. 

Naturally, in those days, if you were in need of a meal, you got what you got—one entrée, with no accommodation for allergy, religion, vegetarianism, nothing.

People Serving People is in a better position to serve today, thanks to grants from the Twins organization and other major sponsors, as well as contracts with Sysco and other food vendors who donate unused food on a daily basis. On a daily, and indeed even a meal-to-meal basis, Seiler says he has no idea what product will arrive, and how the kitchen will have to utilize it. The kitchen must constantly be nimble, and be ready and willing to use the product that comes through the doors. 

And those doors are enormous. Thanks to a large grant, Seiler was able to design his own walk-in cooler and freezer system, one that could accommodate every single donation and ensure that absolutely nothing goes to waste. 

“No one has ever seen anything like it,” he says, and one gets the feeling that the days of utilizing only commodity meat has remained in his bones. He aims to make sure it will never happen again. 

Those cooling systems and dry storage measure approximately a combined 10,000 square feet, and are stacked to the rafters with Seussian columns of every imaginable random foodstuff: pineapple, hot dog buns, trout, frozen peas and carrots, candy, potatoes, brownie mix, single random packages of meatballs, applesauce, and instant coffee. 

“We have to take everything, and we can’t pick and choose,” he says. 

In 2004, Seiler instituted a culinary training program, in part to solve his woes of finding qualified candidates, and in part to help individuals struggling to find and keep meaningful work. Some of his students have remained on, including Rodlyn Crawford, a native of Ghana, who came to the program while involved in an abusive relationship. The job allowed her to get out of the marriage, live on her own, and she’s been working at PSP ever since. She’s known for her culturally appropriate touch with cookery like fish in fresh marinades that resonates with the shelter’s guest population. 

“I can’t tell you how many compliments we get on the food,” says Seiler.

Felicia Dumas has just graduated from the program and is now embarking on the 13-week internship that could lead to full-time employment at PSP. She’s petite, and almost painfully shy, but when she begins to talk about the work, her spirit opens. 

What does she like about it?

“Everything! I don’t get confident in my food, but the people here are really, really great, encouraging and helpful,” she says. She goes on to rattle off which staff is the king of what. “Bob is the king of soup, Tara is the king of cleaning—and she’s the real boss. She runs Mike but Mike doesn’t know it!” And so on, as every culinary crew everywhere enjoys a camaraderie rarely enjoyed elsewhere in the work world. 

Seiler says it’s people like Dumas and Crawford who keep him going in a heart-wrenching job where he sometimes sees multigenerational families experiencing homelessness. 

While things are indeed better than the early days, he says the job is still a “constant struggle” and he always wishes he had an unlimited budget. Thanks to the support of an overwhelming number of volunteers—3,655 unduplicated volunteers last year—he’s able to do his job as well as he is. He insists that he doesn’t do much at all. 

I decide that this is the untruth of the year, and that the most important thing he does is this one: 

“I believe that everybody deserves a chance.” 

 

AT A GLANCE 

The average length of stay at PSP, which only serves families, is 41 days, averaging 349 guests per night.

In 2017 they served 3,093 people from 1,104 families.

People Serving People is Minnesota’s largest emergency shelter for families experiencing homelessness. 

The kitchen at PSP also provides daily meals for the Center of Excellence Preschool and Learning Center, located in South Minneapolis. 

In 2017, 185 children celebrated their birthdays at PSP. 

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