A man donning several worn jackets and a thick knit cap hunched over the handlebars of his bike to peek inside the back of a white van.
His shaking hand held a cardboard container of beans and rice, still steaming after being scooped out of a large metal pan resting on a plastic fold-out table. He lifted the box to his nose, taking a deep breath before letting out an “mmm.”
“Do you have any more?”
“We have some in another tray,” Arielle Melcher told him as she whipped open one of two red containers containing more of the Mexican-inspired dish. As she piled food into a second container, the man gingerly closed up the first box, settling it neatly into the basket of his bike.
Melcher is a regular volunteer for Martha’s Table, an organization that helps provide food, clothing and educational help to those that need it in Washington, D.C. On this chilly night in February, Melcher was helping with McKenna’s Wagon, the mobile food truck that leaves Martha’s table 365 days a year to take food to the hungry around the city.
The truck “went out during the snowstorm while you couldn’t even see,” Jon Squicciarini, Development Associate at Martha’s Table, said of McKenna’s Wagon.
Now a 17-year-old senior at The Academy of the Holy Cross, Melcher initially started volunteering at Martha’s Outfitters thrift store to earn service hours for school. Melcher, whose black leggings tuck into mismatched socks and green Doc Martens, called that job “mind-numbingly boring,” noting her preference for McKenna’s Wagon.
Melcher was one of 16,000 Martha’s Table volunteers in 2015, according to Francisca Alba, the organization’s Assistant Director of Volunteer Engagement. Alba said McKenna’s Wagon is usually set on help, but there’s “desperate need” for volunteers elsewhere, like with the organization’s Healthy Markets initiative.
Melcher normally helps with McKenna’s Wagon on Mondays, but missed this week because she’d been away visiting the University of Maine, a school “in the middle of nowhere” she hopes to attend after graduating. After another volunteer canceled due to snowy weather, Alba had texted Melcher — who’s completed 225 hours of community service on McKenna’s Wagon alone — to work.
“I was not like that in high school,” Alba said with a chuckle.
Melcher, after arriving at Martha’s Table’s 14th Street headquarters and throwing a green apron adorned with the organization’s logo on over her green army jacket, hopped into a van with Lou Boero, who’s been volunteering at Martha’s Table on-and-off for the last 25 years.
Boero, who works in financial planning but calls himself “80 percent retired,” always drives on Tuesdays. He knows the route to the truck’s first stop by the World Bank so well that as he drives down Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House growing bigger by the second, he can’t seem to remember exactly where he’s going.
“I’ve done this for so many years I can’t tell you the cross streets,” Boero said, finally recalling his destination at 20th and Pennsylvania NW.
As they weave their way to their first stop, Melcher readied grocery bags to be filled with fruit and sandwiches.
“Sounds like you’d like to do the hot. Would you like to do the hot?” Boero said, giving Melcher the option of dishing out the warm meal.
“Sure,” Melcher replied as she straightened out more plastic grocery bags and took inventory of the food: meat sandwiches, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bananas, beans and rice, water and tea.
The operation is quick, aided at the first stop by Lance, a man who lives in a tent nearby. Lance helped ready the bags of sandwiches while Melcher and Boero set up two tables, one for the hot food and one for tea and water.
“Thank you! God bless you! For those of you in school, keep your grades up! Keep praying! Have a blessed day!” Lance shouted at anyone who passed by, whether by foot, bike or car.
“First time, first time,” a man murmured as he walked up to Melcher’s station, a sharp contrast to Lance’s bombastic personality. He quietly thanked Melcher after receiving a container of the beans and rice, making his way to Boero to get sandwiches he could save for later.
“No meat?” another man said. “Nah. If there’s no meat in it, I don’t want it.”
After seeing another man scrunch his face up at the sight of carrots, Melcher delicately moved her metal spoon through the Mexican mixture, serving up two containers of food with slightly less orange. She made small talk with another man who inquired if the blue streaks in her hair had been dyed with product bought at CVS.
After about 30 minutes and 20 people served, Melcher and Boero packed up the van and drove over to McPherson Square for their second and final stop at the night. Again they readied their spread, this time serving almost 40 people at a spot just three minutes from the White House.
By the end of the hour, the air had cooled considerably, and so had the food. Melcher scraped the last bits out of her metal bin, which was now sitting in the bed of the truck, ready to be packed up.
The emptiness of the containers echoed through McKenna’s Wagon as it made its way back to 14th Street, the low whoosh of liquids rocking back and forth and a hollow banging filling the vehicle.
Melcher didn’t look back on the night, only forward. She’d be back again, serving those same familiar faces and many new ones, likely on her usual Mondays.
For information on how to volunteer at Martha’s Table, go here.