Ten minutes before dinner, local artist and urban farmer Meei Ling Ng found herself in need of lemon balm. The kitchen of the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission is large –– it has to be, the shelter serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day to more than 600 people — but on this particular night, its grid of narrow paths was crowded with guests, photographers, and onlookers.
Ng and her team, a group of shelter volunteers and residents, were in the later stages of preparing an elaborate five-course meal, the capstone to a five-week cooking program for men transitioning out of homelessness. They were short on time –– dinner was scheduled for 7:30 –– but the herbal tea needed more lemon.
Ng, a wiry, petite woman, squeezed past her colleagues out of the kitchen, through the donation room, past the Dumpster, and into the shelter parking lot, where she cut some lemon balm straight from a cluster of green shoots, and hurried back inside.
“Farm to Table: Grow Food Where You Live” is the latest project of Ng’s collaboration with the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission. In 2015, Ng transformed a thin strip of parking lot behind the shelter’s dining hall into a lush urban farm. This season, the two rows of raised beds are crowded with the early signs of greens, herbs, berries, radishes, bok choy, celery, tomatoes, eggplant, apples, peaches, and squash. The far end of the garden is framed by an overhanging fig tree already purple with fruit.
In the last two years, the farm has produced more than 3,000 pounds of fresh vegetables, fruits, and flowers, and Ng’s agriculture-education program has trained dozens of homeless men how to seed, nurture, and harvest them.
This spring, Ng added another component to her program –– a cooking class with George Pan, the owner of Foo Kitchen, an Asian-fusion restaurant around the corner from the shelter. On Monday mornings, participants have met with Ng and Pan for a culinary lesson where they practiced cooking techniques and tried out recipes for the celebratory dinner. The final menu included a garden salad, coconut curry corn chowder, fried shrimp with summer noodles, stuffed pork tenderloin with sauteed kale and brown rice, and a sweet dessert pizza –– all made with ingredients the residents had grown.
“I was never big on vegetables,” said Joe Thornton, a graduate of the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission’s “Overcomer” program, a yearlong rehabilitation residency that helps Philadelphia’s homeless population get back on their feet. “I’m a meat-and-potatoes guy. But I learned how to make some all-vegetable dishes, and you wouldn’t believe how flavorful they were. I could eat them all day.”
Thornton is a tall man in his 70s with a head of silver hair and a wry smile. He and the rest of the cooking team were dressed in trim black chef’s uniforms as they put the finishing touches on the first course. The culinary class introduced Thornton to an array of produce he had never tasted before –– his favorite was bok choy.
“I’ve been with these greens since the beginning.” Thornton said, gesturing to the bowls of kale waiting for garnish. “We planted the seeds back in March.”
The Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission has been helping Philadelphia’s homeless population since 1878, when four local businessmen began handing out coffee after church. The mission now also shelters more than 250 men every night and provides many more with meals and free medical care. But Sunday Breakfast prides itself on tending to more than the men’s physical needs –– it also addresses spiritual and emotional well-being. Through Sunday Breakfast, homeless men and women can attend counseling sessions, GED classes, addiction therapy, and religious services if they want them.
The shelter’s farm and culinary program are only the latest advance of this mission. Jarreau Freeman, communications coordinator for the mission, said the organization worked with its clients to find housing and job placement. Many shelter graduates find work in kitchens.
“Meei Ling saw that this was a trend and wanted to build on that,” Freeman said, referring to the practical application of the program. “She wanted to show men how to take the things they had a hand in growing and make a hearty meal with them.” But, according to Freeman, there was also a more emotional impulse behind the course.
“Meei Ling also wanted to show men how to cook for themselves –– that fresh ingredients are accessible, that they can be fun and even easy to work with.”
Ng agreed the class was more than a seminar in practical skills. The name of the event, “Grow Food Where You Live,” is more like a philosophy –– an ability to see in your surroundings the raw materials of a meal.
“My mom used to own and produce five acres of orchids, to import and export,” Ng said of her background in a village in Singapore. “I learned from her how to grow orchids. But we also had our own farm to sustain our own life. Everything we needed, we had right there. Not everyone has that opportunity.”
Ng has spread her agricultural knowledge wherever she lives. When she moved with her husband to an industrial strip of Christian Street, she planted the first tree on her block.
“My husband and I were always trying to make the neighborhood greener,” Ng said. “We got our neighbors to start planting trees, so the street would be cooler and shadier in the summer.”
Sandwiched among a towering storage facility, a Hampton Inn, and Roman Catholic High School, the secret garden on 13th Street isn’t easy to see. But those who stumbled upon the parking lot have been treated with a wall of climbing vines and two rows of raised beds painted pink, red, blue, yellow, and green. Large parts of the wall the vines don’t reach are covered in murals, painted by the Overcomers, including Thornton.
As the dining hour approached, guests trickled in from the street and mingled by cream-colored folding tables in the parking lot. Each table was dressed with a bamboo serving mat, candles, and mason jars full of purple flowers cut from a nearby vine.
The diners, a mix of Overcomers grads, volunteers, donors, and shelter staff, gradually took their seats. At 7:30, a line of volunteers led by Thornton poured out of the kitchen, carrying trays of colorful salads.
One guest lingered in the garden before sitting. Sunday Breakfast director of development Rosalyn Forbes, a younger woman with sandy hair, plucked a few leaves of lemon balm and handed them to him.
“Rub these on your hands,” she said. “They smell sweet.”