Model Meals

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.

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Dishing out frozen brown rice to create individual, microwaveable family meals

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.

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A Week in Food Rescue

The last few months of 2017 sped by as my YAV year developed, but I’m catching my breath at the start of this New Year to do a double blog post and hopefully do a better job of illustrating the work I do.

The organization I work for is Food For Free, America’s oldest food rescue operation. At the core of Food For Free’s mission since the 1980’s has been accepting donated food that would otherwise be thrown away, and delivering it in ways that expand food access to people in the Boston Area. At the supermarket, a lot of food doesn’t make it to the shelves because consumers are unlikely to buy bruised or oddly shaped produce, or bread and groceries close to the expiration date. Food For Free picks up this food in refrigerated box trucks, and brings it to direct service agencies such as pantries, shelters, and childcare centers. The rescue operation channels a major source of waste into something positive, getting surplus food where there is greater need.

More recently, Food For Free has expanded to include other forms of food rescue and even direct service programs. As a yearlong volunteer intern at this organization, I get to work with all of these programs throughout the week and experience many different challenges and solutions involved in a hunger relief effort. I’d like to go through my weekly schedule and share a bit about each of the programs I help with.

On Monday, I assist with the food rescue operation I outlined above by riding on one of Food For Free’s truck routes. For the first half of the day, my coworker and I go to a few supermarkets, as well as a produce delivery service to receive donated food. Then we take the nearly full truck to our list of scheduled stops and distribute food based on what was donated, and also what the recipient agency can best use. For example, we might give apples and bakery products to a childcare center that offers snacks to its kids, and whole produce to a shelter that cooks dinner for its guests. My coworker, who drives the truck, has also built relationships with each of our community partners and anticipates how best to give out the food that we receive day to day. On other routes, which I help on occasionally, the pickups also include purchased food from wholesale distributors and the Greater Boston Food Bank, which go to some of Food For Free’s own programs that I help with later in the week.

On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, I work in the Family Meals kitchen, Food For Free’s program that rescues frozen leftovers from dining halls and turns them into microwaveable meals. Volunteers from the community process and repackage bulk leftovers from meals that have already been cooked, so that this food can be useful to individuals who may not have the kitchen, the utensils, or the time needed to prepare a meal.

Food For Free also supports School Food Markets, which happen at a different school each week on a monthly schedule. At the market, members of the school community including teachers, staff, and students’ families can pick up food at no monetary cost, and in a way that limits the possible stigma and inconvenience of commuting out to a hunger relief agency. The food for these markets is most often purchased wholesale or from the Food Bank. While this program brings Food For Free outside of its core role as a food rescuer, it serves another important goal of the organization to meet people where they are by providing a more reliable, convenient, useful, and destigmatized source of food.

The other Food For Free program that takes place in the schools is the Cambridge Weekend Backpack Program. A high percentage of students in Boston Area school systems receive free or reduced price breakfasts and lunches from the federal program during the week. Their families may not have sufficient access to food on the weekend, so students may have trouble learning effectively when they return to school on Monday. By providing breakfasts and lunches for the weekend, Food For Free aims to promote student nutrition and enable academic success. Every Thursday I go to the Cambridge high school to help student volunteers sort and pack food into bins that will eventually go to 16 elementary schools and be taken home by over 500 younger students. On Friday mornings, representatives from each of the elementary schools pick up the bins of food for their students and pack meals into individual backpacks. The Backpack Program encourages cooperation of many community members and presents a model that can be repeated in other school systems.

The final program I work with at Food For Free is Home Delivery. Two weekends each month, I help pack a mix of rescued and purchased food, and then help take that food to individuals who may have trouble leaving their homes to shop.

Broadly speaking, my role at each of these programs is to assist the staff coordinators that make this work happen. Running these operations smoothly requires considerable setup and organization of community volunteers. In addition to doing the routine work that makes these programs effective, I have enjoyed learning and experiencing how the program coordinators balance the goals and limitations that drive this organization.

Disoriented Arrival

Friends, greetings from New England! After moving into the YAV house this weekend with Sarah Jeanne and Mary Frances, my year as a Boston Food Justice Young Adult Volunteer finally feels official. I have spent the last two weeks becoming oriented to the program, or perhaps as Rick Ufford-Chase would prefer, disoriented. Rick is the co-director of Stony Point Center, where the ’17-18 YAV class gathered to prepare for the upcoming year. The great thing about disorientation is the opportunity to challenge routines and rebuild them from the ground up.

Accepting a volunteer placement this year is certainly a break in routine for me. For the first time in about 20 years, I am no longer a student. As a Boston Food Justice YAV, I will consider seriously what I eat and where it comes from, something I’ve never done when I’ve gone to the pantry for a snack. And as I reflect on systemic injustices, I recognize my inability to fix the world, as well as my responsibility to examine my own habits.

This year of developing new routines for thinking, doing, being, and living could get messy. Only by trusting in God will I be able to reorient myself into unity with my neighbors. Discerning God’s will for orientation will be facilitated by intentional community, as my housemates and I share food, seek spiritual growth, and participate in a neighborhood. We are nervous, excited, and now that we’ve finally made it to Watertown, we are ready!

I’d love to share a brief update of what I’ve done since leaving Richmond, VA two weeks ago:

In Stony Point, NY, I attended a program-wide orientation at a beautiful multifaith retreat center. Much of our time here was spent in small groups that allowed us to exchange thoughts and expectations with YAVs who will be serving in different parts of the country and world. For the first couple of days, we participated in CrossRoads’ critical cultural competency training. With my small group, I spent an afternoon in New York City’s East Village neighborhood, and we reflected on what we observed in an unfamiliar community. At the end of the week, I was welcomed to worship and commissioned by The Presbyterian Church of Upper Montclair in New Jersey.

The next morning I travelled by train to Boston. While staying at the home of one of BFJYAV’s board members, Sarah Jeanne, Mary Frances, and I had local orientation. We visited different parts of Greater Boston, started planning our approach to the SNAP/local food challenge, and met with supervisors from each of our worksite placements. With the help of many hands on the BFJYAV team, we moved into our house in Watertown, MA this weekend. Now that I’m settled in, I’m excited to start my work at a nonprofit called Food for Free this week.

I hope you’ll join me this year by following my blog and keeping the Boston YAVs in your prayers. I look forward to sharing more about Food for Free, applying for SNAP, eating locally, and my host community in the near future!