How Food Brings Us Together

I recently celebrated my fourth year as Nutrition Program Manager at the Food Bank Coalition. When I was first offered my current position in September 2014, I jumped at the chance to not only get paid to do what I love, but also relocate from North Carolina to an area that would bring me personal joy as a competitive trail runner and lover of anything involving the outdoors. Each year, I like to stop and take time to reflect on my experiences and personal growth here at the Food Bank Coalition. I think about the many interactions I’ve had with clients, staff and partners. There is a recurring theme, which (you may not be surprised to read) is FOOD, but also everything that is attached to food.

Melissa with a volunteer and recipient at a senior farmers market.

Of course, food isn’t just food. Food is tied to memories and emotions. It’s experience. It can be harmful and healing. Food is how we identify and how we attach ourselves to different friends, cultures and ethnic groups. We need calories and nourishment, but food provides us with much more than just those things. Writing this, I think about *Patty, a volunteer and recipient at one of our Senior Farmers Markets. Patty, like many of the seniors we serve, lives alone. She prepares meals for one and dines solo most nights. One could experience dining alone every night in many different ways. For Patty, it’s laying out a tablecloth and lighting a candle. She savors each bite and makes the entire meal a pleasurable and mindful experience. Hence, her meals are a practice of self-love and celebration of health.

My position at the Food Bank Coalition has often extended outside of food and the education around it. Over the years, I have helped people of all ages and backgrounds improve their eating habits, and in turn, their overall health. But I’ve also made countless connections and friendships. Last November, I met a client who, like me, spent her life playing piano. In fact, she taught lessons and wrote music for decades. However, age and arthritis had become barriers to her playing. After a USDA distribution in the common area of her senior living community, she eagerly took an offer to play her songs and brought me one of her music books. I played her songs as she glowingly sat beside me. She had only heard a computerized version; and, although played with perfect accuracy, a computer doesn’t capture the emotion and depth of a song like a real person.

Melissa also manages our Children’s Programs. Here, she’s holding a Summer Breakfast Bag.

Another client at this same monthly distribution is one I met during my first month with the Food Bank Coalition. Despite needing to carry an oxygen tank with him, *Anthony rode a bicycle to our public distribution at Salvation Army. One of the humblest and kindest people I’ve met during my time here, we developed a friendship that picked up where it left off each time I saw him. He moved to a complex where we also have a monthly distribution, so he no longer needed to make the trip on his bicycle. But every time I went to his complex, I helped him carry bags upstairs. I recently found out that there was an accident, and Anthony is now at a hospice care facility in another state to be closer to his family. Hearing the news felt like hearing about a family member. Although I knew nothing personal about Anthony, I had always looked forward to seeing his smile and enjoying pleasant conversation as I helped him carry his bags upstairs. Now, that monthly distribution feels empty without him there.

Melissa teaching MyPlate to a group of after school students.

With time passing, we grow older, whether near the end of our lives or just starting out. When I visit the Food Bank Coalitions’s public distributions in Paso Robles, I see *Sandra, a mother of two children- a boy and a girl. With each visit, I’m surprised to see they’ve grown taller. The daughter is starting to look more and more like her mother. At one point, she was missing both of her front teeth, and I made a funny joke as she attempted to eat a sample that had fresh apples in it. The son was once a foot shorter than me, and now I look up to say hello to him. I remember taking photos of another brother-sister pair at a monthly distribution at Paso Housing Authority. One sibling was in a stroller and the other preschool age. I was ecstatic years later when they attended a preschool cooking class I taught a year or two later. And now, they shop at our monthly Children’s Farmers Market at Georgia Brown Elementary. They are surrounded by friends and are thriving, which is a joy for me to see.

Melissa also teaches Community Cooking Classes. Here, she demonstrates proper knife handling to a group of teens.

Food has connected me to so many people over the years. I love hearing people share stories and ways they prepare foods at home. One friend who stands out in my mind is *Jacob. He lives in an RV in Paso Robles and visits our USDA distribution each month. He owns only a crock-pot that he uses to prepare all of his meals. I’ve shared many tips and recipes with him, and in turn, I’ve also learned how to be very creative with a crock pot. I visit distributions to share recipes, but I’ve also been given countless recipes from friends I’ve made, some that may have passed on from family members. I have biscuit recipes scribbled on scrap paper, printed recipes with special notes on how to improve them, veggie burger recipes that were tried and just had tobe shared with me.

A recipe shared with us at one of our distributions.

It has been a very special four years spent on the Central Coast and with the Food Bank Coalition, and I look forward to continuing my growth here and to building new connections. It’s a great feeling knowing that I’ve made someone’s day a little better, and it’s rare to have a day go by and I don’t feel that. I think that in this field of work, our roles may be specialized, but the act of service is something fluid and serendipitous. Similarly, the mission of the Food Bank Coalition is to alleviate hunger and improve our community’s health. Yet, we often step outside that box, if even for a brief moment, for love of service to others. There is some dignity lost when someone stands in line to wait for food. There is no avoiding that. But there are things we do as staff members to help soften that blow. Every day, I observe my coworkers helping people carry bags to their cars. They thank our recipients for coming. They remember names of volunteers and clients, letting them know that it’s good to see them. The focus turns to them as neighbors in our community. I think that this shared aspect of our organization is reason to celebrate each day that lives are touched. These are not just people just coming to us for food. They are neighbors, friends, mothers, and children. And it’s not just about the food, it’s so much more than that.

– By Melissa Danehey, Nutrition Program Manager

*names have been changed