When I started the YAV program I knew very little about food. I thought I knew what I was supposed to eat and why for nutritional purposes, but I couldn’t independently shop or cook for myself. I’ve come a long way in the months I’ve been here, sharpening my techniques in the kitchen and taking a critical eye to the supermarket to look beyond price, beyond convenience, and even beyond nutrition, to consider the human and environmental value of how we eat.
We really haven’t spent much time thinking about nutrition here as BFJYAVs. Our local food challenge has led us to almost entirely cut out heavily processed food, a satisfyingly healthy measure that I recommend. But otherwise, we buy what we buy based on its implications for social and environmental justice, and we use it in ways that are most economical for our intentionally simple lifestyle (e.g. freezing scraps and leftovers to limit food waste and use later). Where I really learned what makes a meal was not in my kitchen at home but in the Food For Free Family Meals kitchen.
Family Meals is one of my favorite programs at my nonprofit organization because of how it creatively addresses multiple issues in the food system. This program uses frozen leftovers from collegiate and corporate dining halls in Cambridge to make individual microwaveable meals for people in need. Volunteers break up the bulk frozen food into small loose pieces that can be scooped into compartmentalized serving-size trays, sealed, and put back into the freezer. Processing the food this way prevents it from going to waste, and expands access for food insecure people who may not have the ability to prepare food in a fully equipped kitchen.
Even more specifically, Family Meals is a model for creating nutritious and appetizing meals that make sense. Each meal consists of three parts: a starch, a protein, and a vegetable. We scoop one cup of starch or grain into the larger of two compartments, and on top of that we place a meat or vegetable protein. Then the smaller compartment gets a serving of vegetables. When we receive donated food, we think about it in its role of starch, protein, or veggie, and when combining these, volunteers try to put items together that are meant to taste good, such as baked fish and roasted potatoes, or tofu stir fry on rice. The possibilities are endless, but every meal is built with the same three blocks.
I knew I had internalized this model when I started thinking of my lunches in the same way. As I scoop rice into a Tupperware, I think, “What protein do I have that would go well with this?” Sweet potato and lentil curry, quinoa with split peas, and good old-fashioned rice and beans have been some of my favorite meals to have leftovers of. Creating meals by combining the grain, protein, and veggie elements ensures that a greater amount of the calories I eat are nutrient rich, compared to trying to target specific dietary needs or using heavily processed food.
The joy I feel when I explain Family Meals and its multidimensional model is similar to the joy I feel when a meal comes together that started as separate, uncooked, whole ingredients. What these two experiences of my YAV year share is a consciousness that nutrition could be simpler than we’ve made it out to be, and that it encourages an infinitely satisfying creativity. Perhaps the best news is that we don’t have to turn into health nuts to eat healthy, we just have to know how to put three blocks together. With all the time and energy we save, we can turn our attention to other aspects of our food: promoting environmental sustainability, rejecting the exploitation of farm and food workers, expanding food access, and supporting the idea that sustenance is a human right.