Coming Out of My Bubble: Serving Others While Serving Food

I have a new venture in my life. One recent morning in Sunday School, our teacher announced that our class would be one of four groups who would be volunteering with a local church’s soup kitchen. That immediately got my attention. I had no idea my little town in central Kentucky had a soup kitchen.

I have always felt a strong calling from God to serve. Lately, it’s become an almost audible voice in my ear. I’ve discussed it with my husband, Gregg, feeling like the call was to go “out” – to join a mission group, pack a suitcase, and go — which would be a lot easier to consider if my husband wasn’t in Afghanistan, leaving me at home alone with three children. The conflict between this call versus my duties and responsibilities and love and life here occasionally overwhelmed my emotions. I felt like I was suffocating.

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As soon as I heard the announcement about the soup kitchen, I wanted to get to work. I didn’t want to tarry while everything was coordinated, schedules were created, for me to wait my turn to go work just once a month. I now felt overwhelmed with this urgent, immediate feeling of “NOW”.

The next week, I fought the urge to call the host church of the soup kitchen all week which would have preempted my own church’s plans. I planned my youngest sons’ 2nd birthday party, entertained my parents from out of town, and enjoyed a weekend mini-revival at my church. Vacation Bible School started on Monday, and all day I would reach for the phone to call the soup kitchen, but set it back down again. That night at VBS, where I worked in the kitchen feeding the staff and helpers and serving snacks to the kids, I talked with our pastor while he ate, confessing my desire to step forward and work right away.

He told me he was going to the church the next morning with our youth pastor and the head of the men’s ministry, and invited me to join them. We worked Tuesday, getting an idea of what was needed so that schedules could be coordinated, and as we finished the day, the pastor told the head of the ministry that we would start our volunteer rotation in July.

I told her I’d be back the next day.

I found out that just one elderly woman cooked five days a week all by herself. At one time, there had been 2 cooks, but one of them hasn’t worked for the last two months due to illness. That left this lone woman to do everything all by herself, and she confessed to me that she felt “plumb wore out.” It was very easy to step up and say that I would start cooking even more.

My prayer is to be a complete blessing to this wonderful ministry. My family follows a Levitical diet. Among other things, we don’t eat pork. The first morning serving at the soup kitchen, we took big cans labeled with nothing more than “U.S. Government Pork”. We picked through the canned pig flesh and pulled out big chunks of fat and threw them out, then mixed the remaining meat with K.C. Masterpiece Barbecue Sauce (second ingredient: high fructose corn syrup). This we served on pre-packaged white bread hamburger buns, with Lays potato chips and canned peaches for sides. Dessert was a sugar-free cherry pie artificially sweetened with Sucralose.

Almost all of the food is donated by amazing companies. There is a huge warehouse filled with cans and boxes and bottles, and the woman who runs it all (and who is the only other cook besides myself) sits down with her inventory and creates a menu plan. She does this on her own time, completely volunteer, and out of her heart.

The donated food isn’t piece-meal, as if the product of a community food drive. There are giant pallets of boxed mashed potatoes or gallon cans of green beans. Corporations give, processing plants give, grocery stores give. A local grocery store gives all of their day-old bread and desserts by the truck full, and what isn’t served that day is set on a table to be given out.

And this leads me to what I perceive as a very modern problem.

I’m going to pre-empt this by saying that I in no way am criticizing the ministry. I am not criticizing the generous companies that regularly donate this food to this organization. Nor am I criticizing the people who work so tirelessly, as volunteers, to serve this food to those who are clearly in so much need. What I am criticizing is the very existence of this food in the first place.

A woman came that day we served the BBQ sandwiches. She had a terrible headache and collapsed in the arms of the head cook, just sobbing, because she was so tired and so hungry and hadn’t eaten for two days. People come into this church and eat two, three, sometimes four helpings because this is the only food they’re going to get all day.

But the food is poisoning them.

Image by NatalieMaynor

I think I have been removed from the real world for too long. I live in my “real food” bubble, with my fresh fruits and vegetables, good meats, free-range eggs, organic dairy, and fresh milled flour. We choose to spend more on groceries and take more time on meals so that our family can benefit from the extra cost and the extra effort. In the end, we spend much less on health care. And when I have occasion to walk through the grocery store aisles, I have actually found myself getting angry with the volume of just pure junk that crowds the shelves.

I wonder when the tables turned. When did processed, chemical laden, nutrient lacking pre-packaged foods became the most economical, the most convenient, the thing that everyone wanted. Why does society just accept that a meal-in-a-box sitting on a grocery store shelf for possibly months at a time is ‘as good’ as fresh meat and fresh ingredients being used to make a dish of the same name?

I watch these poor, hungry people; so many of whom are sick, toothless, wheezing, hurting — and I want to hug them and then feed them GOOD food. I want to offer them rich breads and hearty fresh produce. I want to make big batches of a bone broth and load it down with fresh vegetables and aromatic, medicinal herbs and serve it with fresh-baked whole grain bread.

But there is no way I can do that. I can’t afford to feed hundreds of people a day all by myself. Even if I could afford it, I’m facing a society of people who don’t understand that there is even anything wrong with the mega-farm, factory-processed, all-of-the-life-sucked-out-of-it ultra pasteurized, ultra-homogenized, artificially colored, artificially sweetened food.

I think as I became a “real foodie” and started making the best choices for my family, and as the last six years have gone by and I’ve removed myself from the junk food world, that I’ve put on blinders.

I find myself getting angry in the grocery store, then pretend that it isn’t there. What? Hallee the Homemaker angry? Yes. I am. I watch shows like Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution and get fired up about our kids’ school lunches and the health of the children today, and assume that everyone else has the exact same reaction that I have to it. I assume that people just naturally care about it, and are willing to make the changes that I have made, all of which have so greatly improved our quality of life.

I assume that corporations know that the artificial this and that, the preservatives and industrial grade chemicals, the processing that they put food through — I assume that they know how harmful to the health of consumers these things are and they are are willing to make changes that will better serve us in the end. And I am so very disappointed every time I read the labels of new products to find hydrogenated this and high fructose that all sweetened with aspartame.

Now I’m in the mix of it. Now I’m cooking with it. There simply is no other option. You can’t tell someone who hasn’t eaten for two days that they can’t eat this food because it isn’t good for them. I mean, come on.

The biggest problem is the ignorance (and I use this term in it’s purist meaning – as in a lack of knowledge and education – and not in a derogatory manner) of most consumers in society. What do you have to do to food to make it shelf-worthy in cardboard for months? What do you have to strip away from it and add to it for that to happen? And why don’t we seem to care?

In my perfect world, the donated food would come from local farms. It would take a few more volunteers and a lot more time and effort (A LOT more time and effort), but the food would be wholesome, nourishing, healing, and healthy. And it would more than fill the bellies of the people who eat it – it would benefit their lives, too.

I feel like maybe God is using me for this. Maybe He’s sent my family on this real food path, sent us seeking all of the books and information and education. Maybe my exposure to the real foodie community through my blog and through such amazing sites like Keeper of the Home and Kelly the Kitchen Kop has been to prepare me for this ministry. Maybe this journey has brought me to this soup kitchen so that I can help impact it and start getting these people good food.

Yesterday, I talked with the owner of the fruit stand the boys and I walk to a few times a week – where we shop for all of our seasonal fruits and vegetables. After he donated a huge portion of the apples, pears, and peaches I needed for a bake sale, I talked to him about donating produce that he couldn’t sell anymore to the soup kitchen. With his supplier contacts and local farming networks, I think that we can start getting some fresh food coming into the soup kitchen.

It’s a start. I’m happy to start somewhere.


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