Friday, December 30, 2011

Another helping, please...

As part of year-end reflection, I’ve been looking at my work from 2011 to decide what I liked/didn’t like and also to determine the subjects I hope to write more about in 2012.

It might seem simple, but I have to keep reminding myself that I’m most interested in writing and life when I stay ahead on story ideas – when I’m trying to carve out little roads rather than just fill potholes in other words. I feel like I should always be asking: “What do I need to say?” "What do people really need to know?”

Here’s something I really wanted people to know about in 2011:

(Photo by Shelley Mays, The Tennessean)

The Nashville Food Project serves hot meals, hope

By Jennifer Justus | The Tennessean

This is the story of a 42-cent meal.

A plate of baked chicken with balsamic sweet potatoes; a salad of homegrown lettuces tossed with peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, garbanzo beans, herbed croutons made with Provence bread and freshly whisked lime vinaigrette; and ending with a scoop of bread pudding drizzled with vanilla glaze.

Yes, that meal costs only 42 cents. No, it's not especially efficient.

But The Nashville Food Project Executive Director Tallu Schuyler Quinn
is OK with that. Because the energy it takes to help make this meal —
served to some of Nashville's poor — helps make connections among
local food advocacy organizations while reducing waste, invigorating
volunteers and emphasizing cooking over convenience. It provides
nourishment, but also education and empowerment. So, yes, this meal
costs 42 cents, but it's worth much more than that.

The Nashville Food Project (TNFP), which changed its name from Mobile
Loaves & Fishes recently, has been serving meals to Nashville's poor
since 2007. Until lately, it mostly provided sack lunches with a
turkey sandwich, boiled egg, bag of trail mix, cheese stick, piece of
fruit, pretzels and bottled water. But increasingly, the organization
has been adding hot meal runs to underserved areas — providing
homecooked food with produce grown at the organization's two gardens
or gleaned from farmers market donations and Second Harvest Food Bank.
While the sack lunches cost about $200 for 80 people, the hot meals
cost about $31 for 82 people. Meanwhile, as Americans waste about 27
percent of food available for consumption, the hot meals help move the
excess to those who don't have access.

We followed the process to learn just how a 42-cent meal comes to be.

A numbers game

Tucked inside Second Harvest Food Bank's warehouse with beeping
forklifts and boxes stacked to the ceiling is the "open shopping" room
for nonprofit groups. It's the size of a convenience store —
fluorescent lights, freezer cases along the walls, shelves lined with
boxes of Triscuits and Cheez-Its.

The food here, facing its last days, has mostly been donated by
Kroger, Publix and Walmart, and it will be given away or sold by
weight at greatly reduced prices — 25 cents per pound of meat, 4 cents
for dairy.

Anne Sale, hot meal coordinator for TNFP, begins her Tuesday each week
at open shopping, and she likes to go early, before the "good stuff
gets gone." She heads straight for the meat, with a pallet on wheels
as her cart.

"I got a bunch of pork tenderloins today, which I'm so excited about.
... Oh, eggs! We can use those for the bread pudding," she said.

Sale tries to plan the hot meals a week in advance, but she'll make
adjustments if necessary, such as when a batch of slightly overripe
bananas became banana pudding.

The selection at open shopping can seem random — cans of clam sauce,
scads of pickles, guacamole — but with a little creativity, it can
make a fine meal.

"I'm a little bit of a numbers person, too, so I like to create as
nice a meal as I can with as little as possible," Sale said. "All this
is basically gonna get trashed. ... If I wouldn't eat it, I'm not
gonna get it."

Sale pointed out a box of frozen sweet potatoes. "I would normally get
those, but we just got bushels from the garden."

She also has to choose things she can get in large quantities. Each of
the two trucks owned by The Nashville Food Project can hold about 85

"Dessert, I kind of struggle with, because I want it to be healthy,"
she said, picking up a box of cake mix. "Trans fat, zero. I'm gonna
get some."

And then, looking in the freezer case, she spotted some sausage that
she hadn't noticed before. "This is turkey. I'll buy that." She had
made jambalaya last week.

Sale collaborates with volunteers at The Nashville Food Project and
must make quick decisions about the menu. But health is important to
her, too. She's fit, exercises regularly and practices moderation and
healthy choices, which she works into the hot meals. Her background in
banking also serves her well on the financial end of menu planning for
a nonprofit.

After having the contents of her cart weighed, Anne loaded it into her
car. She'll head back to The Nashville Food Project's headquarters in
Green Hills to prepare for the next day's run. She'll make croutons by
using donated Provence bread, donated olive oil and dried basil from
the garden. Meanwhile, volunteers will make homemade bread pudding.

But as she loaded her car, she worried about some limes she had been
given by a caterer who had extra after making a lime curd.

"I've still gotta figure out what to do with those," she said. "I just
love that challenge."

New name, focus

TNFP serves hot meals on Wednesdays and Fridays with plans to add a
meal on Thursdays in November and a fourth weekly meal in January.

Volunteer coordinator Nicole Lambelet said that the idea to serve hot
meals initially came from a desire to pack more nutrition into each
plate while using produce from the garden or donations. But then they
realized that the hot meals could be cheaper.

Sale was part of that ah-ha moment with Quinn when the pair sat down
with a recipe for chicken pot pie.

"This is like $30, and that's all," Sale remembered for a meal that
served about 80. The aluminum pans used for serving the meals (which
they try to use more than once) are the largest expense, along with
other serving supplies.

The emphasis on hot meals also happened to coincide with the rollout
of a new name for the organization. The group recently broke away from
Austin-based Mobile Loaves & Fishes.

"It was an amicable divorce," Quinn said. "I think we outgrew the
national organization and what was expected to be part of it."

Quinn said she wanted to be a local organization using local money
with local volunteers focusing on the local problems of hunger and
poverty. And although Mobile Loaves & Fishes isn't affiliated with a
particular religion, Quinn — a minister at Woodmont Christian Church —
wanted to remove the association.

"I would never want the people we serve to think they have to believe
in something in exchange for our food."

Fresh, local ingredients

On the morning of the Wednesday hot meal truck run, Sale drizzled
glaze onto bread pudding while volunteer Rachel Blair, a caterer of 30
years, whisked up a citrus vinaigrette. She had found a place for the
donated limes.

The meal had come together mostly through donations, harvests from the
garden and purchases made at a discount. Cucumbers, tomatoes and
peppers had been gleaned by The Society of St. Andrew, an organization
that picks up leftover food from local farmers markets and
redistributes it where needed. Garbanzo beans, adding protein and heft
to the salad, were purchased from Second Harvest at 18 cents a can.

For later meals, Sale pointed out a bowl of figs donated by Whole
Foods Market, a pallet of tomatoes from the farmers market and a
colorful bowl of antohi peppers from Eaton's Creek Organics. There
were 25 logs of goat cheese and chocolate almond tea bread in the
refrigerator, also from Whole Foods, and a bucket of Jerusalem
artichokes just harvested from the garden that she'll roast with
potatoes for meals later in the week.

Care and feeding

The truck crew for the day, coordinated from a pool of about 650
active volunteers, included Quinn, longtime volunteer Becky Atkinson,
and newcomer Judy Alford, a Hendersonville farmer at Hunt's Century
Farm. Alford had donated some corn, turnips, potatoes and tomatoes in
July and wanted to learn more.

"I'm just kinda trying to figure out the bigger picture," she said. "I
just love that you are using produce that we can't sell." It's a
situation she sees often, like when the ugliest tomatoes — still
perfect in taste — get left behind.

The truck headed toward Dickerson Pike and Trinity Lane, an area known
for high crime, drug use and prostitution.

"This is where the thistles grow," Quinn said. It's an expression used
by the Magdalene House's Thistle Farms, a group that helps get
prostitutes off the streets.

The people who live in many of the motels along this stretch of North
Nashville pay $600 to $700 a month for rooms with maybe a small fridge
and microwave for cooking. Some are in transition from homelessness.
Others live in a motel room for decades.

"If I were driving down this road this time of day," Alford said, "I
would have thought no one was here."

But when the truck pulled into the Key Motel and Quinn honked the
horn, a man stepped out of his room and waved. Residents trickled out
of their doors as volunteers formed an assembly line.

Lisa Allen, 49, said she looks forward to seeing the truck every week.

"Wednesday at 12 o'clock, I'm like 'Where you at?' " she said.

"I came here 10 years ago to spend a weekend and never left," she
said, though she's worked as a manager at the hotel for the past three
years. "It's not what it's all cracked up to be."

But on this Wednesday, she had particularly bad news for volunteer
Becky Atkinson. A former resident named Linda that Atkinson knew had
died. Allen said Linda had suffered from AIDS and cirrhosis, caused by
alcoholism. Allen knew Atkinson would want to hear.

"I love them to death," she said of TNFP. "They are thoughtful people.
They not only come and serve us lunch, they pay attention to us."

"Just like her," she said, pointing to Atkinson. "They talk to you,
and if they can, they give us suggestions."

Despite the bad news, the volunteers at TNFP have hope. The group made
the decision, Quinn said, to focus on smaller neighborhoods such as
Dickerson Road and the Trinity Lane area where their small
organization can have a greater impact by partnering with other
organizations. As a mobile unit, they also choose out-of the-way
places that aren't near a bus line or downtown, where more meals are
served to the homeless and poor.

"As we've made this transition, more of the people we serve have
started volunteering with us," Quinn said. The formerly homeless
residents at the Hobson House, a place created after Tent City was
flooded in 2010, now help prepare and deliver TNFP meals, sending the
message that those served can someday do the serving.

Quinn and Lambelet also hope to implement cooking education in 2012.

"Not only do people need access to food, they really need to be
empowered to make it themselves," Lambelet said.

Further down the road, Lambelet spoke of a "dream" to have a
pay-what-you-can restaurant. Located in a food desert with alternative
staffing, it would provide jobs, education and an income stream for
the organization.

But even now, the group's efforts prioritize cooking over a meal that
can be standardized.

Resident Shawn Lewis also stopped by the truck to grab a quick lunch.
He works at a tire shop and has been staying at the hotel for about
two years. He makes maybe $35 a day, which is hardly more than what he
pays in rent per day.

"You gotta eat somehow," he said. "It helps. ... Sometimes you can't
get to the mission."

And so as volunteers packed up to leave, it seems the hot meals — and
lending an ear — are making a difference.

"I'm sorry about Linda," Atkinson said to Allen.

"I am, too," she called back with boxes of food stacked in her hands
for her boyfriend and grandchildren. "I really do miss her."


Breaking down the plate

Chicken (purchased from Second Harvest Food Bank): 25 cents per pound

Sweet potatoes (harvested from The Nashville Food Project gardens): $0

Lettuces: spinach, arugula, heirloom bibb lettuce (harvested from TNFP
gardens): $0

Cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers (gleaned by The Society of St. Andrew
from local farmers markets): $0

Garbanzo beans (purchased from Second Harvest): 18 cents a can

Croutons (made with donated Provence bread and olive oil and dried
basil from TNFP gardens): $0

Lime vinaigrette (made with donated limes and extra virgin olive oil): $0

Bread pudding (made with donated bread from Provence, raisins
purchased from Sam's Club and eggs purchased from Second Harvest): 4
cents per pound (for dairy)

Staples, spices and condiments, such as sugar, flour, paprika, garlic
powder, vinegar and salt and pepper, are items kept on hand in The
Nashville Food Project's pantry.

To get involved

What: The Nashville Food Project

Where: 3605 Hillsboro Pike

Contact: 615-460-0172, or search "The
Nashville Food Project" on Facebook

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