A couple of months ago I had the opportunity to attend a Welcome event for Community Cooks, a Somerville-based organization that seeks to connects neighborhood cooks to neighbors in need. A friend of mine had recently started serving with the organization and invited me along. While I had been serving with the organization for over two years at that point I felt I still didn’t know much about them. I also hadn’t been able to attend a welcome event yet.
My friend and I arrived that evening with questions and expectations. Mainly, since most of our food prep and contributions for the group are done in isolation, we hoped to meet other cooks in the network and get to know those we served with.
We were greeted with a warm hello and an invitation to help ourselves to a dinner catered by Bertucci’s. Feeling a little sheepish at the thought of taking food when we were working to provide it for others, at the same time we savored the feeling of being taken care of unexpectedly. We settled into our seats and got to know those seated around us.
There were cooks who had been preparing meals for months and those who hadn’t yet begun to serve. Several served on a team of people and would cook their portion of the meal before dropping it off to a drop off location or directly at the center they served. Even cooks on the same team rarely ran into each other. My friend served in that type of role. I have been serving in another capacity — providing a complete sandwich dinner once a month to an after school tutoring group. I knew there were others who provided the dinner on other days, but for my particular assignment I was the entire team.
For the woman to my left, the isolation was grating. She wanted to serve but worried that her contribution wasn’t good enough. After a lot of stress in the kitchen where she sometimes would remake the side dish she contributed to the meal, she dropped the food off alone. She craved feedback and connection. She even confessed that she might stop participating because it felt so unrewarding. I scaled my feelings against hers and decided that while I wasn’t ready to jump ship, it would be nice to have a little boost of gratitude. Each preparation and delivery does feel like a sacrifice, and I figured having a sense of community would reassure me and keep me in the boat.
As the official presentation began and we learned more about the history of the organization, our feelings softened, and our questions seemed less urgent. Founded by a few Somerville neighbors in 1990, Community Cooks has experienced incredible growth. About 4-5 years ago they were supported by about 450 cooks. Today, they utilize over 900 cooks in 61 Greater Boston cities and towns to support 46 partner nonprofit human service agencies (and counting). This network provides home-cooked meals to 4,600 neighbors in need every month.
The project director flashed the logos of the nonprofits provided for through our efforts. The images, as they always do, spoke more than words. Logo after logo meant people being fed, people being cared for. Logo after logo represented the number of services available, the staggering number of ways clients might need help.
The program director acknowledged that while we might feel like we work in isolation, she hoped that in hearing about how our contributions fit into the larger picture that we too might feel like something bigger than ourselves. It takes each and every one of us to play a part. She acknowledged that it can be hard to feel satisfied in service when you don’t get feedback or see results (like seeing the clients enjoying the meal). In an attempt to provide that satisfaction they passed along these point of feedback from the staff at the nonprofits:
”You’re the best volunteers -- you just drop off the food and leave.”
“The food you provide draws people to the programs, letting them take advantage of services available.”
“The food you provide frees up a staff person to do the work for the purpose of their organization without needing to take the time to also prep the food.”
In short, she reaffirmed, “you are appreciated, even if you don’t always get feedback.”
A few short weeks later I was given rare feedback. One of the staff members at the organization I serve told me that she had a student who always looked forward to the chicken cutlet sandwiches I bring. I was so pleased and excited that I could provide something the student could look forward to eating.
Still, even prior to hearing those words, my friend and I left the welcome event determined to stick with it. I may or may not seek out the company of others engaged in this work in my community. But I will keep cooking for the organization I serve.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.