By MEGAN GIBSON and VADIM LAVRUSIK
Chef Michael Ennes sees the effects of the struggling economy every day.
Ennes, in charge of the soup kitchen at Broadway Community, Inc., at 601 W. 114th St. in Manhattan, said he has noticed the number of middle-class visitors at the kitchen increase.
“It’s so easy to fall off the edge,” he said. “Don’t need a cyclone — a breeze could push you off.”
Because of the recession, Broadway Community has become very popular, Ennes said, but the social service center has been able to serve hundreds weekly and has maintained its volunteer support.
BCI offers a soup kitchen on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, as well as a food pantry that provides several low-income families with groceries each week and other services.
Ennes said while there is never a problem in getting food, the center is often strapped for cash to pay for kitchen supplies and utility bills.
Ennes, 57, is the food services, special projects and training director of BCI. He started at the center after the devastation of 9/11 led him to do some soul-searching. Ennes already had years of experience working as a chef in various restaurants, including a brief stint as an owner of his own restaurant, but the terrorist attack spurred him to reach out to the community. Realizing he could use his talents to help at the organization — just blocks from his Upper West Side home — he decided he wanted to transform the way the soup kitchen was run.
Faced with the task of feeding a lot of people, most soup kitchens structure their menus around canned foods. Ennes, however, said he was “constitutionally unable to do that.”
Instead, he said he focused on preparing healthy, restaurant-quality food for the center’s guests, using organic and sustainably grown foods. The soup kitchen always has a vegetarian alternative and Ennes privately calls Mondays “meatless Mondays.”
Although he has prepared dishes such as Mesopotamian meatloaf with apples, raisins and an almond cumin sauce, Ennes said that when it comes to his kitchen, “the point is not fancy, the point is nutrition.”
In addition to the soup kitchen and food pantry services, the center also has programs that demonstrate nutritious, inexpensive ways to cook the food they provide.
Ennes focuses the programs on three fundamental aspects of food preparation: nutrition education, culinary education and access to affordable, nutritious foods. The programs are designed to help people not only improve their daily eating habits but also to acquire skills that could help them find a job.
Yvonne Shields, a community chef at Broadway Community, is an example of how the program can help transform someone’s life. Shields said she wanted to give back to the program after experiencing homelessness herself just nine years ago.
She was homeless for 10 months, but got involved in some job training programs that the city provided, hoping to change her career path as a day care coordinator for private providers, without much luck.
She decided she wanted to become a chef and was able to after stumbling across Broadway Community. She completed the Food and Nutrition Training Awareness Program, better known as FANTAP, at the center. The six-week vocational food program, taught by Ennes, trained Shields in nutrition, sanitation and meal service as well as covered the $105 cost of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Department Food Protection test, which greatly improves the chances of getting hired in a restaurant.
Shields, who is now retired and lives in the Bronx, gives back to Broadway Community by volunteering her time, teaching others the cooking skills she learned. She recently did a cooking presentation, including all the produce that was being given out by the center that evening. The dish for the night: pan roasted corn and tomato salad.
T.A. Johnson, 44, was helping her with the demonstration by “prepping”— cutting up the vegetables and gathering the ingredients for the chef.
Though he isn’t homeless, Johnson is in need and has gone through “hard times,” which is why he volunteers at the center. He said often times it is difficult to get enough food as a single man at other centers. “Unless you got a bunch of kids, they barely give you anything,” he said.
The produce served at the center is some of the freshest that Johnson said he has ever seen out of any local soup kitchens. The quality of the produce is why he has kept coming back, Johnson said.
The abundance of food given out is the reason Shirley Ashworth, 61, made her way from the Bronx, despite knee and ankle injuries. “I heard the pantry was going to be really big tonight,” Ashworth said, sitting down to take a rest from the stairs and tend to her hurting ankle.
Ashworth said that in 1999, she spent the year living in her car. Broadway helped her with food and other services provided her with housing support.
“I got back on my feet, until I fell down the stairs in my apartment and broke my ankle and hurt my knee,” she said. “Now I’m just trying to stay up.”
Like Ashworth, many people facing unfortunate personal circumstances are under the additional stress of an unstable economy. However, despite the increasing number of guests visiting the center, Ennes remains optimistic that Broadway Community’s programs can help people deal with hardships.
The programs are not merely handouts, he said, but are intended to use “food as a tool to help people rebuild their lives.”