It never occurred to me that food banks could be way to help keep people forging ahead.
My friend Julie who works for Food Banks Canada invited me to lunch at a Community Kitchen last Tuesday. The timing was perfect as I had been feeling a bit sorry for myself and she thought some perspective would do me good.
Having never visited a food bank Community Kitchen before, all I had were my preconceptions. I pictured a dreary, poorly-lit place where people ate by themselves wondering where life went wrong.
We arrived around 11:30 to an Indian Chickpea and Vegetable soup simmering on the stovetop and a gorgeous vegetable lasagna in the oven, but all I could smell were the peanut butter bites in the corner.
“Don’t get any funny ideas” said an older European man who clearly saw me eying the dessert tray. “Save the best for the end”. For the first time in what seemed like forever, I felt myself crack a smile. It then hit me like a ton of bricks that I, probably most privileged person in the room, was the gloomiest gus there. I had started down the road to perspective and it felt good.
Looking around, I saw a tight-knit community with an inspiring sense of collective dignity. In spite of the seemingly poor hand life dealt them, they were all there to better themselves. There was a group in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on lunch, a smaller group putting the folding tables together and two people in the corner sorting plates and cutlery. And they were all happy to be there.
While I waited for the first course, I took the opportunity to chat up two of the women who showed up that day.
First was Dagmar. She was wearing a nice dress and obviously spent time on her makeup that morning – not someone I’d ever thought I’d see at a food bank.
Dagmar came to Canada from Brazil, leaving three grandkids and a teaching career behind to help her sister look after her family. She’s studying Early Childhood Education at Seneca College, doing her practicum and working. She visits the food bank about once a month to fill out her grocery list when she’s short on cash.
One of the reasons Dagmar likes visiting the Community Kitchen is to work on her English. “Not speaking English well has made it very hard for me to get ahead. I’m not living up to my potential right now, but I’m getting there. I know I’m a winner”.
Until hearing Dagmar’s story, I had always thought of the food bank as a place people went when they had given up. It never occurred to me that it could be way to help keep people forging ahead. Embarrassment washed over me, not just because of my ignorance, but because I realized how poorly I had been dealing with my own adversity compared to Dagmar. For a brief moment, she was the most inspiring person I had ever met. Then I met Diana.
When Diana’s dad got Alzheimer’s, she quit her middle-management job and went on social assistance to become his full time care giver. “He helped my entire life” she said. “It’s my turn now”. She also uses the food bank to make ends meet, but she visits Community Kitchen to get away for a bit and recharge. “It’s the same routine at home with my dad” she said. “Here I get to talk to people and learn new things every day.”
Just as Diana was getting on a roll, it was time to eat. Julie and I took a seat at the communal table and Maria (clearly the den-mother of the group) brought out the soup.
What I learned about the meal I was about to have was that it was all made with food someone could regularly find at the food bank. In fact, the whole point of the Community Kitchen was to teach food bank clients how to cook healthy with food bank items – the whole teaching a man to fish versus giving a man a fish. It made so much sense to me that a food bank would have this kind of programming, and I was shocked that it hadn’t been talked about or celebrated more. This was a story that needed to be told, and I was glad to be in a position to tell it.
Not wanting to take food from people who needed it more than I did, I served myself a very small helping from the pot. That was a mistake because the soup was fantastic. I wolfed mine down in seemingly record time, and before I knew it, Maria had taken my bowl from me and refilled it almost to the top. I initially felt bad about accepting seconds while everyone around me was still on their firsts,but them I took another spoonful and felt more than okay about it.
After the soup, the facilitator started a group discussion about what next month’s meal would be. Through that, I learned that the kitchen has a working barbecue out back and that if the weather held up, they’d do burgers and dogs. As two of the men started debating the best burger toppings, out came the vegetable lasagna.
Again, I was hesitant to take a heaping helping; but again, Maria gave me no choice. As we ate, another group discussion got started about what could be done to better spread the word about the Community Kitchen. The consensus around the table was that people should have to find it on their own or through a friend. Like the Community Kitchen concept itself, there were to be no handouts. People should have to work for it.
With the lasagna almost all gone, the smell of the peanut butter bites was even stronger. As Julie and I cleared the plates, the man who earlier warned me not to cheat on lunch with dessert came in to the kitchen and, with a smile, handed me my first dessert treat. It was ridiculously good. I had two more when I got back to the table. Clearly, I had gotten over my previous issue.
After some light post-meal chatter, it was time for Julie and me to head out. As I got back into the car, the calmness of perspective washed over me. I came here feeling emotionally paralyzed and left feeling inspired to do something about it. I’d gladly accept another to the Community Kitchen, especially so if the Peanut Butter bites are there.