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“Do you want some risotto?”

With that, first lady Michelle Obama began scooping mushroom risotto to help serve lunch Thursday to some of the mostly homeless men and women who get free meals at a soup kitchen several blocks from the White House.

Her visit was designed to highlight the work of places like Miriam’s Kitchen, as demand for their services have risen during the economic downturn, and her interest in community service, an issue she wants to focus on as first lady.

Mrs. Obama urged people to donate food and, if they can’t afford that, then to just give a hand.

“There is a moment in time when each and every one of us needs a helping hand,” she said after leaving the serving station. “Miriam’s Kitchen has become a place where so many people have been able to find that helping hand.”

“Their work here has meant the world to so many and it is an example of what we can do as a country and as a community to help folks when they’re down,” Mrs. Obama said. “Helping is an easy thing to do.”

The fruit salad served along with the risotto, steamed broccoli, apple-carrot muffins and whole wheat rolls was prepared with fresh fruit donated by the White House. Eight cases were sent over, enough to make Thursday’s salad and be used at breakfast for two weeks, said Scott Schenkelberg, executive director of Miriam’s Kitchen.

Miriam’s, which opened in 1983, serves breakfast daily and lunch on Wednesdays. The Thursday meal was special, and the men and women eating that day hadn’t been told Mrs. Obama was coming.

The donation by the White House is a “tremendous example” of how easy it is to become involved, Schenkelberg said.

“It’s easy and painless and we need your help,” he said.

Mrs. Obama said people should make “good, healthy food” the focus of any donation.

“There are people all across the country, even in these times, who can lend a hand and volunteer at a soup kitchen, even if they don’t have the resources to donate,” she added. “So we’re all going to need one another in these times.”

Mrs. Obama tied on a purple apron and joined five volunteers on the serving line behind a glass counter, where she spent about 15 minutes scooping risotto and chatting with the guests as they were called to the line for lunch.

“I didn’t make it, but I hear it’s pretty good,” she told one person after offering the risotto.

George Rivera, 52, of the District of Columbia, said he thought Mrs. Obama would be taller. Minutes after meeting her, he told reporters he couldn’t remember much of what he said.

“It’s a like a blur,” he said.

Rivera spoke with the first lady again after her visit, when she shook hands with the 50 or so guests plus staff and volunteers. He said he told her he had been homeless for a long time but that Barack Obama’s message during last year’s presidential campaign inspired him to vote. He said she told him to continue being civic-minded.

“And I told her that I will,” Rivera said.

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