Raleigh Jenkins is at the Central Harlem Alcohol Crisis Center at 6 a.m. sharp every day. He’s been the chef there for the past seven years. The 30-year-old facility is a substance abuse recovery center, currently closed, that also operates a food pantry and soup kitchen that is going strong. It serves hot meals to people in need, three times a day and five days a week, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Today, the dinner line stretches down the block, a mix of people of all ages, some of whom have been coming for years, a few even traveling as far as from the Bronx.
Jenkins says that most customers live off of public assistance and that many are homeless. And they aren’t the only ones struggling to get by in the neighborhood. Central Harlem currently holds the highest unemployment rate in Manhattan, last recorded in 2010 at roughly 16%, about twice that of New York City as a whole, according to a 2011 Furman Center report. Central Harlem is also home to the second highest poverty rate in Manhattan, with more than 22% of the population living below the poverty line, according to the Center for Economic Opportunity.
This high need is evident at Central Harlem Alcohol Crisis Center. On his busiest days, Jenkins says that the line wraps around 127th Street. Today is the first of the month, the day that welfare checks and other income support arrives in the mail. In Central Harlem, more than 40% of residents are on public assistance, according to the NYC Department of City Planning. Check day is typically the lightest day, says Jenkins, joking that the usual people are out treating themselves to shrimp and lobster. But when he opens the door at 5 p.m., there’s a line of more than 30 people waiting in the rain for something hot to eat.
Today it’s rice and beef stew, with a choice of a brownie or a cookie. Jenkins prepares the meals in advance, individually portioned in aluminum take-out containers, which he heats up in the oven just before opening the kitchen’s doors. A sturdy 52-year-old man a little on the heavyset side, Jenkins carries a tray loaded with dozens of meals like it weighs nothing.
He’s assembled a makeshift serving station by the building’s back entrance, where he stacks the meals on a rolling cart and doles them out in a narrow hallway by the door. The women and children eat first, a policy Jenkins insists upon. They sign in on the visitor’s log, most just jotting down their first names and leaving off their ages. People are visibly excited about the brownies, some even asking for two, a request Jenkins has a hard time denying.
Waddell Mitchell, 51, has been coming to the kitchen for two years. Without missing a beat, he lists his favorite meals that Jenkins serves—from French toast, pancakes, and bacon, to chicken nuggets.
“It’s good, I’m going to devour it,” said Mitchell about today’s meal. “It’s something free, there’s no reason to complain. On some days, it’s like a treat.”
Mitchell jokes that the food is too healthy for his liking, in need of a good dose of salt. Jenkins, cooks with little salt, and with as much fresh produce as he can. That said, he acknowledges that fried chicken is the biggest hit with his customers.
“If you come into a neighborhood like this, the people don’t eat vegetables,” he said. “We don’t cook with a lot of salt. We don’t want to contribute to more health problems.”
In the dinner line, Jenkins greets several customers warmly, asking after their families, and making small talk. He chats about the myriad uses of cayenne pepper with one man, and patiently waits while another wavers indecisively between a cookie or a brownie. He’s has built up a comfortable rapport with many of those he’s helping, including 47-year-old Andrew Jackson, who comes daily after wrapping up his dishwashing job in Harlem. Since Jackson isn’t able to make it by the kitchen’s closing time of 5:30 p.m., Jenkins saves him two meals, one for him and the other for his daughter.
“A lot of people can’t afford food, you’ve got to understand,” said Jackson. “A lot of people are starving out here.” Before leaving, Jackson asks about tomorrow’s menu. When he hears that turkey meatloaf will be served, he smiles.
At 5:30 p.m., Jenkins is done for the day. He’ll be heading home to the Bronx, where he lives with his five kids. He stays a few minutes extra just in case there are any stragglers, even though he’s been up since dawn. He always keeps a few plates on the side. Tomorrow is Thursday and he generally serves oatmeal for breakfast.
“Most of the people, they enjoy coming here. That’s all they need, someone to treat them nice,” said Jenkins. “You don’t look down on a man because he’s down. Make him proud he’s somebody, he’s who he is.”