Meat and cheese on white bread, chips, cut up celery, and Little Debbie snacks were packed in my Care Bear lunchbox. Noodles with artificial chicken flavoring, pizza, cheese and rice were mainstays of teen life. Before school on cold winter mornings, I remember eating warm bread from the oven topped with butter and sugar. The bread was made from frozen dough delivered by the Schwan’s man. Each week his yellow truck full of frozen goods pulled into our driveway and brought us chicken kiev, chicken cordon bleu, ice cream cups with chocolate fudge, pizza, and rolls of bread dough. Convenience was the culinary philosophy that fed our family.
Large blended Butterfinger Mochas topped with whipped cream and crushed up candy bars were part of my daily ritual as a twenty-something. I smoked a pack and a half of Camel Lights, then Marlboro Lights, then Newports, then Marlboros each day despite loving to sing and developing asthma at 17.
Doctors prescribed medicine for my upset stomach, headaches, asthma, anxiety, and depression. Pills and inhalers remedied the symptoms. One medication when combined with an antibiotic gave me dry heaves that would not stop. I was carried from the bathroom to my then-boyfriend’s car and driven to the E.R. That was twenty years ago.
My relationship with food has evolved. I’ve cultivated a more balanced approach that nourishes me and those I feed. A typical day might include omelets for breakfast, chicken and vegetables for lunch, pork tacos for dinner. I often nosh on grapes while I cook.
I haven’t lit a cigarette in 16 years. My fiancé and I work out six days a week. An albuterol inhaler is the only medication I take on a regular basis.
My life has changed.
Now, I like listening to The Splendid Table on Minnesota Public Radio. I search for new recipes to cook and meal plan. Doing foodie things like chef’s tastings and visiting Chelsea Market in NYC are among my favorite things. When I bake for the enjoyment of others, I feel connected with my Grandma Rueb. According to my dad and his siblings, nothing pleased her more than watching someone enjoying something she made for them. My list of life regrets includes not taking the time to know her better when she was alive.
Just over a month ago, I did a story for a local newspaper about Operation Nourish. It’s a program that provides groceries for members of Project Legacy. Members are between the ages of 17 and 24. Some are refugees. Some were in gangs and/or incarcerated. All are now in school and working.
In a conference room at Project Legacy, I interviewed five of its members and Project Legacy Co-Founder Karen Edmonds. They were having dinner before Healing Circle, a group therapy session and support group. Each student had a plate filled with an assortment of healthy food. Fruit, vegetables, meat, and grains were abundant.
“Who here has ever been homeless?” Karen asked the group. There was a moment’s hesitation. Karen reassured the students that their names would not be published in the paper. Four out of five raised their hands.
One student mentioned that when he’d complain about being hungry after school, his parents would say, “eat at school.”
“Do you know how to cook?” I asked the group.
One young man shared that he remembered eating bread and sugar. If there was syrup, he put it on his bread. He dined on bread and barbecue sauce sandwiches. It all depended on what was in the house. “How did I ever eat that?” he asked.
The teens and young adults in Project Legacy have started thinking about nutrition. Some have recently decided to become vegetarians and discovering the deliciousness of organic food. Without the food support that Operation Nourish provides…
“What would happen if you didn’t receive food from Operation Nourish?” I asked the group.
“I’d go back to the junk food, because it’s cheaper.”
“One-dollar menu at McDonald’s.”
“Four for four dollars at Wendy’s.”
“You just feel ten times better when you got a workout in and you ate,” a young man about to celebrate 90 days of sobriety said. “It all goes hand in hand. When you’re taking care of your body, you want to take care of your life.”
“You just feel better naturally too,” added a young woman who works full-time and goes to college full-time. “If you’ve got food to eat, a place to sleep at night, a nice place to work out, life just seems more positive. You focus on things that normal people would focus on.”
I could identify with these young adults to an extent. When I eat better, I feel better too. I enjoy cooking wholesome food from scratch. When I look back at what I used to put into my body, I think, How did I ever eat that? Drink that? Smoke that?
The next day, I was at Fiddlehead Coffee working on another story for the paper. I talked with Patrick Phelan and his sister-in-law Sarah, two of the four owners of Fiddlehead. Sourcing local, buying organic, knowing the producers of the products they serve are priorities for them. They don’t offer their customers any of what they would consider borderline food products.
“What’s better for the earth, better for the consumer, what makes us feel better as participants in a food system,” said Patrick. “is to always, in every way, lean towards something that is healing.”
“Nothing is better than a warm tomato from the garden,” said Sarah. “It’s also all just really cozy – getting closer to our food and getting away from mass produced.”
Help Like a Mom
The day after meeting Sarah and Patrick at Fiddlehead, I met with Heather Robinson at Panera. She started Operation Nourish by asking herself a simple question, “What would your mom do in this situation?”
“These kids are trying so hard to break through that and be resilient. We’re just helping them like a mother would,” Robinson said. “Here’s some snacks for your game. Good luck. Here’s a little treat basket.”
Working on those two stories back to back fired up my growing interest in food and how we eat. I’m eager for spring to really show herself in Minnesota, because I want to start a garden in our backyard. One that I hope will feed more than our family. I have never gardened before, so we’ll see what happens. I’ve also started volunteering for Operation Nourish.
Once every two weeks, I see the sign-up sheet. An initial of the first name is next to the food being requested. The past two times, I’ve chosen the same letter and same items to get: sliced turkey, chicken breast, hamburger meat, and whole wheat bread.
I shop as if I am buying food to serve in my home. For my home, I buy DiLusso deli meats at Hy-Vee, hamburger meat that is 85/15, Wholesome Harvest bread, and Just Bare chicken breasts. So, that’s what I’ve bought for the young adult I shop for who signed up to receive food from Operation Nourish.
Food creates a powerful connection. There is this irrational and unexpected protectiveness I feel about who I am shopping for. What would happen if I didn’t do it and someone bought food that wasn’t the same quality? What if someone chose a brand that I would consider a borderline food product? Really, I’m just shopping like a mom concerned about nutrition does. I’ve also baked a little something extra to put in with the requested items each time like my Grandma Rueb probably would.
How we eat and what we eat matters. How we give and plant matters too. My Grandma Rueb may not have thought she made much of an impact on me. Yet, I feel this unexplainable drive to show people love through food like she did. It’s part of the legacy she left behind. We may never see the effect of our choices. The blooming might happen well after we pass. Is that any reason not to plant?
The young adult I’ve provided food to wrote me a Thank You card the other day. I have it sitting on the shelf above my desk next to pictures of my family, including my Grandma Lynch (who I always felt an easy connection to – we both love books and words).
Learn more about Project Legacy and how you can help by clicking here. Follow and get involved with Operation Nourish by clicking here. They will be starting an organic garden this summer and cooking classes at Hy-Vee. Both are great opportunities for volunteers to get involved.