As I read and write about food security issues, I often come across stuff by survivalists, or “preppers” as they are sometimes called. They are a group of mostly individualists who store food, grow food and often have a lot more faith in guns and weaponry than I do. When they write about permaculture food-plant groupings or water catchment systems, I learn what I can. When they write about what weapons they have for when the SHTF (something hits the fan), my eyes glaze over and I get pretty skeptical.
We humans are mostly a social lot, you see, pack animals whose security derives from what we provide for each other. It may be that our food systems have become so centralized and distant that they have become potentially unreliable. But we need each other to live.
This month I decided to research more social ways that people get food in an emergency, so I visited places where free meals are served to those in need. One Sunday night I had chicken over rice at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Loring Park. The next Thursday I had salsa over chips at Holy Rosary in the Phillips neighborhood, followed by spaghetti the next week at the Community Café at Waite House and sloppy joes at St. Stephen’s over on Clinton Avenue. What did I learn?
First, I learned that I was welcomed. Each of these locations actively seeks to provide a relaxed and dignified “no questions asked” meal that satisfies more than just physical hunger. Don’t get me wrong: The food was great. My plate went back clean after each of these meals. Whether mostly family groupings or clusters of friends or just strangers sitting and chatting near each other, there were social opportunities as well as physical nourishment.
Every location was a little different. St. Mark’s had only a few families and had many more men than women, perhaps because there are more shelters for men in that area. Holy Rosary is right across the street from the Little Earth buildings, so there were lots of Native-American kids, sometimes with parents and sometimes not. The Community Café at Waite House had lots of friends eating with each other. St. Stephen’s was a mix of friends, individuals and family groupings.
In general, the people who showed up to eat at these places looked a lot like Minneapolis: white, African American, Native American, Spanish-speaking. There were some folks with suitcases on rollers or backpacks, but mostly people came with empty hands. Some wore faded or ripped clothes, but some also had clothes so new the tags were still on them.
Why do people come for a free meal, you may wonder. Obviously, many of them are broke, but usually not because they don’t have work or don’t want work. The No. 1 request to the visiting social worker at St. Stephen’s or Holy Rosary is for help in finding a job (or a second job or sometimes a third job). The No. 2 request is for help finding education or training that will help them get a better-paying job. The meals are provided “no questions asked,” but from conversations it seems that most already have at least part-time work, or full-time minimum-wage work, and that they need to have a free meal from time to time in order to make a car payment or rent payment. Or maybe they just lost a job recently.
It may surprise you to know that some come mostly for the company. One elderly man said, “I am tired of cooking frozen dinners and eating alone.” A woman, mostly housebound due to serious back problems, overcame her pride that kept her away and eventually said, “This is the only time in the week I get out of the house to be with other people.”
It may not seem intuitive that serving someone a free meal would encourage them to be more self-reliant, but that is the philosophy of the folks over at Loaves and Fishes, the organization that coordinates meals at Holy Rosary and St. Stephen’s and a number of other metro locations. They maintain that after people have received food and community contact, that “it is only then that self-esteem and empowerment can move individuals to independence.”
I talked with several people at Loaves and Fishes as well as the coordinator at St. Mark’s, asking them at the end of the conversation if they had anything else they would have people know about their programs. “Tell people to volunteer,” they all said in different ways. “We can always use more volunteers,” they said. “People who don’t volunteer are just missing out,” was one way a coordinator put it.
From the first breath of a newborn to the last breath of a dying elder, we learn to care for each other. It is what makes us human. Without dignity in providing the most basic need of food, we lose a bit of our own humanity. With it, we assure the future of the species. By volunteering, we join in common humanity. So if you are led, call St. Mark’s at 612-870-7800 and volunteer. Or call up Loaves and Fishes at 612-377-9810. They need you, but, even more important, you also need them.
For the calendar this month, there are a lot of canning and food preservation classes. Check them out.
Thursday, Aug. 7, 7 to 8 p.m. $10. “Intro to home food preservation,” Growing Lots Urban Farm, 1912 E. 22nd St., Mpls. 612-564-8524 or email@example.com
Sunday, Aug.17, 1 to 3 p.m. $30. “Countertop fermentation: cucumber pickles,” Mississippi Market, 1500 W. 7th St., St. Paul. 651-690-0507 or http://msmarket.coop/events/classes/?month=2014-08
Thursday, Aug. 21, 6 to 8 p.m. $15. “Canning tomatoes,” Mississippi Market, 1500 W. 7th St., St. Paul. 651-690-0507 or http://msmarket.coop/events/classes/?month=2014-08
Sunday, Aug. 24, 1 to 5 p.m. $36. “Old-fashioned jams,” Mississippi Market, 1500 W. 7th St., St. Paul. 651-690-0507 or http://msmarket.coop/events/classes/?month=2014-08
Tuesday, Aug. 26, 6 to 8 p.m. $26. “Pesto-making,” Mississippi Market, 1500 W. 7th St., St. Paul. 651-690-0507 or http://msmarket.coop/events/classes/?month=2014-08