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I work in a kitchen three days a week. A kitchen in a homeless shelter in Southside Richmond. My main job is standing in a service line putting food on people’s plates. From 5:00 in the morning until 6:00 at night.

It’s a return to my roots in a way. I worked the dining halls in college as one of my work-study jobs, and walking into a commercial kitchen again after all these years brought back some memories. There’s something about the smell of a walk-in freezer or food pantry, or mopping the floors after a meal, that just seems universal.

Of course, there are some differences, too. Twenty-five years hasn’t left me the same person I was back then, and I can’t help but see things in a different light today. Which invariably leads to a few new insights.

1. Charity can be wasteful. I remember a story I heard once about the American Red Cross sending tons of dry milk to Ethiopia in response to a major famine and drought. The Red Cross meant well, I’m sure, but it turned out that many of the Ethiopians were lactose intolerant and couldn’t drink or digest the milk properly. They wound up mixing up the dry milk and using it for paint for their houses, instead.

Yesterday in my kitchen, we served eggs for breakfast and chicken for dinner. The eggs were organic, worth about $3.50 a dozen in the supermarket. The chicken was free-range and boneless, which usually runs about $10.00 a pound.

By the time we were through with it, though, the organic eggs were drenched in butter, and the free-range boneless chicken was deep-fried. Almost completely ruined, at least to my way of thinking. It reminded me of that scene in Apocalypse Now, the one with the grade-A T-Bone steaks turning gray as they boiled in the vats. The horror, the horror.

Was this necessarily a bad thing? Well, it depends on how you look at it. It was certainly wasteful. Considerable effort was spent to produce organic, rather than ordinary, eggs, and free-range, rather than ordinary, chicken. But the value added to the product as a result of this effort went completely to waste with the addition of butter and deep-fat frying. I mean, we could have been serving the nastiest chicken and the most questionable eggs you’d ever seen. Once we were finished “preparing” it, there would have been virtually no difference whatsoever.

So, should the donor supermarket –- in this case, Ukrops, God bless ‘em -– stop giving away excess food to homeless shelters just because the food won’t be fully appreciated? Of course not. Food is food, and those eating it derived some benefit, even if the full benefit was lost.

So to paraphrase Winston Churchill, donations in kind are the worst form of charity, except for all the others.

2. Some people are pigs. No, really. It's true. I know this because of the wondeful opportunities available to me to observe human behavior as I serve food to hungry guys 13 hours a day. And the truth is, some people are just downright pigs. Honest-to-God, "Give me as much food as I can stuff in my mouth" pigs.

This, standing alone, hardly qualifies as a revelation. There are all kinds of people in this world, after all. What I have found interesting, however, is the fact that I've found it virtually impossible to predict who will be a pig, and who will not, just by looking at him.

Some are fat, sure, but a surprising number are rail-thin. Must be a metabolism thing. There are loud, boorish pigs, but nearly as many seem to be quiet and reserved. At least everywhere but the dinner table. Some are poor and uneducated, but others were wealthy, educated professionals in a past life. And the ones just off the street, the ones you might expect to be the most grateful for the free food, are sometimes the rudest, most inconsiderate of the bunch.

The program director at the shelter has a word for this. She calls it "heathenism," a delightful, made-up word that blends "heathen" and "hedonism" in a wonderfully descriptive way. In the end, then, I guess the saying is true. Bad manners know no class.

3. People resist change. This may seem like an obvious point, but it’s funny how such basic ideas show up in people’s behavior. Our kitchen serves four “meals” a day: breakfast, lunch dinner, and a snack at 2:30 p.m. The snack is by far the most popular offering of the day, chock full of gooey sweets, cakes and pastries from local bakeries. If asked to describe the behavior of the guys waiting to hit the snack table at 2:30 sharp, I’d have to turn to the animal kingdom for the best analogies.

From 2:00 to 2:30, they circle in front of the snack table, searching for and selecting their prey like a flock of vultures. At 2:30, they become a cattle stampede as they rush for the table, followed immediately by a locust swarm settling in on the table until 2:45. From then until 3:00, they lounge amidst the debris of their feast with the satisfied look of just-fed hogs wallowing in their pen after a meal.

But here’s the funny part. A quick glance at the snack table reveals that all the crap, for lack of a better word, is gone. Grocery-store cupcakes, glazed donuts, birthday cakes, mass-produced coffee cakes. All gone. But the good stuff -- Starbucks pumpkin spice muffins, Greek wedding cookies, lemon poppy-seed two-bite scones -- remains virtually untouched.

Why? Simple. The good stuff looks different. The Starbucks muffins, old-fashioned donuts, and cakes are all individually wrapped in plastic by hand, not the bright, shiny commercial bakery boxes. As for the wedding cookies and scones, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone pick up a box of such goodies and promptly discard it with a quizzical stare. Never mind that we’re talking about the best stuff on the table. If it looks different, it won’t even get a second glance.

Oh, well. More for me, I guess. Just don’t tell anybody. The word might get out.

4. Watch out for institutional dining. I’ve found that some people hate institutional dining, others thrive on it, while still others really thrive on it. If you’re in the first group, you’re probably a picky eater who wants things just so or the meal is ruined. Institutional dining, by its nature, can’t tailor itself to an individual’s specific tastes, so this “one size fits all” approach leaves some people in the cold. Oh, they’ll still eat the food, don’t get me wrong. But they’ll grumble with each forkful they shove into their mouths.

Personally, I find myself squarely in the second group. I truly thrive eating in a cafeteria setting. I’m not very picky about what I eat, and it’s easy for me to push away from the table when I should. My problem in the real world is eating too much between meals and throughout the day, a problem that virtually disappears if the food is only available at certain, specific times.

Those in the last group just can’t seem to let any available food pass them by. They’re victims of what I used to refer to as the “cruise ship syndrome” when I taught economics at U.Va. The basic idea is that a rational person should consume a product, say food, until the benefit derived from that last bite (“marginal benefit”) just equals the cost of that last bite (“marginal cost”). The marginal benefit of most products decreases as more is consumed, so that an equilibrium will be reached when the marginal benefit falls to the level of the price.

If the cost of that last bite is zero, however -– say, at an all-you-can-eat food trough –- a rational person will continue to eat until that last bite of food is worthless. In other words, they’ll eat until they’re so stuffed that you’d have to pay them to eat another bite. That’s a lot of food.

5. Mopping can be fun. If you let it. There are some jobs people just don’t want to do. In fact, the Discovery Channel has an entire show devoted to such messy, unpopular jobs. But I’ve found that these jobs are almost never as bad as most people think. Mopping seems to be a perfect example. Most guys I work with in the kitchen will do practically anything to avoid it. Don’t ask me why, I’ve always kind of liked it. I used to mop the dining hall floors all the time back in school, and the rhythmic swipe of the mop back and forth was the perfect blend of exercise and relaxation for me. Now, when I volunteer to mop, the other guys are so relieved they wind up doing way more work than I do. Go figure.

I’ve tried in this writeup to highlight the some of the more humorous aspects of my job, but the fact is that it is one of the most seriously rewarding things I’ve ever done. The guys who are eating fried free-range chicken for dinner one night may have a bowl of cold rice for breakfast the next morning. And while they may grumble about their food, I expect that most of them would admit their gratitude when asked.

As do I. I used to be a partner in a major D.C. law firm, with all the attendant material benefits, and I was absolutely miserable. Today I’m serving food in a soup kitchen, and I’m happier than I’ve been in years. Some mornings I wake up so grateful for my bed, my food, and my work that I can’t stop the tears. I don’t ever want to go back to where I was, and with His help, I don’t have to.

Thanks for letting me share.

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