Around 5pm on a cold, windy Tuesday, an eclectic mix of people stand in a long line at Civic Center’s UN Plaza in San Francisco, waiting patiently. Some have big travel backpacks, a couple have tough-looking dogs, and a few are dressed like they just came from work. Suddenly a bright orange and yellow minivan arrives at the plaza. A team of volunteers wearing orange aprons emerge and quickly set up tents, tables, and giant, metal vats of steaming food. The food smells of ginger and garlic.
This free meal service appears every Tuesday, courtesy of an organization called Curry Without Worry. Its menu contrasts many local soup kitchens. Instead of classic American fare like sloppy joes or macaroni and cheese, they serve authentic Nepali dishes: dahl, mixed vegetable curry, rice, a fried bread called puri, and a spicy, tomato-based chutney called achar.
Achar is made using a Himalayan spice called timur, sourced from Nepal. Today’s chef, Hari Tamang, believes timur is a healthy, healing spice with the power to cure cancer and rebuild your immune system. He uses timur and other spices alongside fresh vegetables rather than canned ones, and everything is vegetarian.
“There are at least two servings of vegetables here and that’s really hard to get,” explains Cynthia Jeanne Lee, who lives in a shelter and relies on free meals like this one. Lee adds that it’s both the good vegetables and the socializing that prompts her to come for this meal. “Cities are not usually places you can be gregarious,” she says. “This is the best I can do, to network with all these nice people.”
While some of the people who come for the meal are homeless, others, like Frankie LaFleur, are not. LaFleur lives outside the city, and has made a habit of stopping by before his graveyard shift at work. He always helps set up and then grabs something to eat. “I’ve become friends with some of the volunteers here,” he says. “It’s not like a food line, it’s more like a gathering. Different walks of life come here and eat.”
Everyone is welcome, and that’s the point. “We’re eating together, we’re all in the hearth, we’re all in community. For a moment, everything stops, and we’re connecting,” explains volunteer and board member Jeri Coakley.
This connecting is what the founder, Shrawan Nepali, intended when he started the organization. Nepali splits his time between San Francisco and their Nepal chapter, which provides a similar service every Tuesday in Kathmandu. He grew up in an orphanage in Nepal and received help from others to make it to the United States, so all of this is his way of giving back.
Volunteer Jeri Coakley says she’s also seen a desire to give back among some of the people they serve. She was recently impressed when a struggling student who had periodically come for meals returned later to repay the favor by volunteering. “It’s fun to see that a meal can change a person’s life,” she says. “It makes you want to go to Nepal. It makes you want to create a bridge.”
In some respects, Curry Without Worry is already that bridge. To experience it, you only need to make your way to the Civic Center on a Tuesday night, and to come hungry.
This story originally aired on January 27, 2014.