The gift of giving

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I just came home from the grocery store, where I picked up the turkey I’ll prepare and serve Thursday for a rag-tag group of friends, their family members, and friends.

Some people have had a rough year financially and otherwise; others of our guests are doing okay, or better than okay.  No one we know personally is starving or on the streets. But, you don’t have to live a mile from Skid Row, as I do, to know that many people are.

And while preparing this annual feast is a lovely diversion from the day-to-day, there’s no time quite as gratifying as the night a group of my friends get together and cook a meal that feeds 150 homeless women.

Here’s the tab for what we made last month at the Downtown Women’s Center: Monterey chicken fajitas, Spanish rice, zucchini casserole, and fruit salad. Around $330. This provided lunch for the (growing number of) women who show up at the Center on a regular day. The meal was a bit pricey (40 pounds of chicken breasts don’t come cheap, even at Food4Less) but when we cook a vegetarian recipe, the cost per person– and thus the cost we all chip in– is far less.)

Of course, the money’s only part of a meal. A dozen of us get together to prepare it, and then it’s reheated the next day for lunch. When a group like ours does the shopping and the work, that’s money saved for the shelter. But there’s far more to the equation than economics.

Wrangling giant pots in a a commercial kitchen, peeling onions and chopping peppers, working collectively to prepare food–food we don’t get to eat ourselves–is a beautiful, collaborative, humbling experience.

What sets it apart from the Thanksgiving meal (or any meal) we enjoy with family and friends is that we not only cook it together outside of the confines of our homes–but that we do it for people we don’t know, and probably won’t ever see.  People who, for whatever complex reasons, don’t get to make the food choices most people reading this blog get to make each day.

Every year as I gear up for Thanksgiving, I’m reminded of the conclusion I arrived at long ago: That honoring the sentiment behind the holiday just once a year wasn’t enough for me. Sharing food is something I wanted to do as often as possible. And, I’ve learned, sharing it with people who really need it brings even more joy.

It was easy to find people to join us. Sharing food is something a lot of people want to do, but never manage to find the time to do, until someone gives you no reason to come up with an excuse.

A few years ago, I found myself with more control over my schedule than I’d ever had in my life– and alongside that, a deep longing to work in my community. So I went for the requisite volunteer training at the shelter, and sent out an email to friends and acquaintances I’d suspected would be on board. Now, it’s a night we all look forward to.While we aren’t ending hunger or combating homelessness, we are getting in touch with our community. Is there more that we can do? Without question. But we are helping people enjoy one hearty, healthy meal. And as with most volunteer work, we ourselves reap the largest benefits.

While I’ll enjoy the slow pace of a long, languishing meal on Thursday, I am grateful for delicious food– and the times I cook with friends for people who need it.
Want to volunteer? There are countless ways to help. Try Volunteer Los Angeles or Volunteer Match to get started.