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Feeding the masses, fueling a movement

Seventy-year-old Phyllis Coelho plunged her blue gloved hands into a plastic sink of gray soapy water and spent an afternoon last week cheerfully washing dishes "to support the revolution." The retired social worker had traveled from Belfast, Maine, the day before with her 78-year-old friend and fellow dishwasher, Jane Sanford.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Seventy-year-old Phyllis Coelho plunged her blue gloved hands into a plastic sink of gray soapy water and spent an afternoon last week cheerfully washing dishes "to support the revolution." The retired social worker had traveled from Belfast, Maine, the day before with her 78-year-old friend and fellow dishwasher, Jane Sanford.

They headed directly to the protest at Zuccotti Park because, they said, it was time to "show up."

At a table behind her, Nan Terrie, an 18-year-old law student from Orlando, Fla., was furiously chopping carrots and onions even as she juggled cell phone calls from people wanting to donate food, and handed hastily scribbled "to do" lists for other volunteers. Anj Ferrara, a 24-year-old artist, was tearing open some of the 40 boxed pizzas that had just arrived. And Tom Hintze, a 24-year-old bike tour guide, was trying to figure out the logistics of getting a truck and driver to pick up massive trays of pulled pork that someone wanted to send from Brooklyn.

The makeshift "kitchen" in the center of the park is the ever-evolving heart of the Occupy Wall Street encampment, managing to feed thousands daily even as it scrambles to figure out how to deal with an endless flow of donations.

But the people who work there — and those they serve — say it is much more, imbuing it with the same fervor that has marked the protests from the beginning.

"Revolution is fueled by eggplant parmigiana!" cried David Everitt-Carlson, smacking his lips and cleaning his plate after dinner. Sitting cross-legged in a cardboard box daubed with the words "I think outside the box" the unemployed 55-year-old said that, after months of homelessness, he had never eaten better.

Bagels and eggs for breakfast; pizza and burritos for lunch; fresh salads, organic vegetables and casseroles, pasta or barbecue chicken for dinner. Endless helpings — all fresh, all free. And all served amid the deafening din of protest: masks and marchers, drums circles and dancers, chanters gripping signs exploding with rage at corporate gluttony, all surrounded by barricades and a phalanx of police officers.

"There is so much ingenuity and innovation right here in this kitchen that is so lacking in so many other areas of the country," said Sam Tresler, a 32-year-old consultant from Brooklyn as he dropped off a pot of mashed potatoes he had cooked that morning. "It's inspiring."

The kitchen has no on-site oven or refrigerator or stove, just fold-up tables, tarps, racks of food and tanks of water.

Truckloads of fresh fruit and vegetables arrive daily from organic farms in upstate New York and Vermont and Massachusetts, steaming containers of chicken and rice, burritos and lasagna are sent from restaurants all over the city, tubs of Ben and Jerry's chocolate and cookie dough ice cream arrived one sunny morning (and was scooped by the company's chairman of the board, Jeff Furman), and there is a seemingly never-ending delivery of pizza pies, ordered by phone from supporters all over the world.

In the general spirit of the protest, the kitchen has no appointed leaders, just what volunteers jokingly refer to as an "organic hierarchy," meaning those that have been around the longest make the key decisions and assign the daily tasks. Newcomers — and they have come from Haiti and Columbia and Japan as well as from all over America — are generally put on clean-up duty. Others monitor the compost pack and environmental water filtration system.

There is a receiving table for locals who show up with bags of corn or a homegrown eggplant or a bush of basil. At another table a volunteer jots down the names of people who offer their home kitchens for protesters to cook and clean in.

"What you see in this kitchen is pure and inspirational and filled with great hope that we are moving towards something better," says Hintze, who generally makes a living hosting bike tours around the country. But he says he wouldn't be anywhere else. "We needed a reality check and the Arab Spring gave us one. This is where I'm meant to be."

As he is speaking an 80-year-old Jamaican woman who is visiting her daughter in Queens walks up, gives him a great big hug, and gleefully stuffs a single $100 bill into the plastic donations container. She doesn't want to be named, she says, because she intends to do the same next week and "I don't want people to think I'm rich."

Later another woman silently drops an envelope containing $1,000. Other donations have come from organized groups. The Corrections Officers' Benevolent Association of New York City donated food to feed approximately 800 people. And the United Federation of Teachers donated a huge storage space on Broadway, about seven blocks away, where the hundreds of UPS boxes arriving every day — filled with canned food, and sleeping bags and blankets — are sorted and stored.

But from the kitchen perspective, the most crucial donation happened a few days ago, when the Rev. Leopoldo Carl of Overcoming Love Ministries in Brooklyn wandered into the park and offered the use of his soup kitchen — a state-of-the-art commercial operation capable of cooking for more than 1,500. The church, he said, had plenty of cold storage too.

"My congregation wants to help," he boomed. "And many of them are homeless."

Volunteer Heather Squire was incredulous. She had spent the past week desperately searching for such a space, so that the protesters could store fresh produce for the winter and move away from the daily trips to home kitchens that are simply not equipped to cook in volume. She had even talked with a real estate agent about renting a commercial facility — a sore point among some protesters who would rather spend donated money on food.

"I'm an atheist," Squire says. "But there is something mystical happening here."

The 31-year-old sociology graduate from New Jersey works in restaurants because she has been unable to find a permanent job. She joined the movement on Oct. 1, the day of the march on the Brooklyn Bridge and was one of 700 arrested that day. It was "chilling" being behind bars for hours, Spire said, but it solidified her resolve to stay with the protesters. And so, the next day, she found herself washing dishes in a very different kind of kitchen.

Amy Hamburger, 29, had been backpacking in Kentucky a short time before the protest began, but came home to Queens to spend time with her ailing father. A friend encouraged her to go to the first protest and though she had never considered herself an activist, something compelled her to stay.

"It just feels like this is exactly where I am meant to be," said an exhausted looking Hamburger one evening last week, red-eyed from working at the kitchen for nearly 48 hours. By now, she's getting used to lack of sleep. She has been volunteering since the very beginning, when protesters were surviving on peanut butter sandwiches and pizza. For Hamburger, the evolution of the kitchen has been nothing short of a miracle.

"There is this amazing synchronicity," she said. "Every time we really need something, it just seems to appear."

"There's a gestalt here," said Deborah Mulligan a 57-year-old attorney from Madison, Wis., who, having slept on the marble floors of Wisconsin's State Capitol during the union protests last winter, felt an obligation to join the protesters in New York. "When you eat together and break bread together, you talk and you learn and you get even more informed and inspired," she said.

Shane Stoops, who has also been in the kitchen since the beginning, has a more personal take. The self-described "Renaissance man" from Washington state says he has always been a bit "radical" and always had a testy relationship with his dad, a shipyard pipefitter.

"For the first time in his life, my father told me he was proud of me for standing up for something I believe in," said Stoops, 23. "Feeding people is a beautiful thing, but so was hearing those words."