Lex Eat Together

THE POWER OF KINDNESS, COMMUNITY
AND A HEARTY DINNER

Above, Head Chef Bruce Lynn with the new LET spice cabinet. Below, some of the fresh food prepared each week by LET. COURTESY PHOTO


By Jane Whitehead

Every Wednesday afternoon, the community room at Lexington’s Church of Our Redeemer transforms into an elegant dining space. Volunteers wheel out round tables, haul stacks of chairs, spread tablecloths, set out bread baskets and water jugs and arrange flowers, to welcome guests to a three-course dinner, free to anyone in need of a good meal and companionship.

Since its launch in October 2015, Lex Eat Together (LET) has served more than 5,000 meals, welcomed an average of 64 guests a week, and built a network of over 200 volunteers. “I’m proudest of the community we’ve created,” said LET co-founder Laura Derby, referring to the wide range of backgrounds and ages among guests and volunteers.

It Doesn’t Matter Who You Are

On a Wednesday in late September, the LET menu included Udon Chicken Soup, Battered Pork with Tonkatsu Sauce, with sides of rice, Napa cabbage and butternut squash. Among the early arrivals for the 5:15 p.m. dinner were regular guests Ruth Amiralian and her friend Mary.

“Look at what we get,” said Amiralian, gesturing to the table setting, the flowers, the basket of assorted breads. “To be able to walk in and be greeted with such love, kindness and graciousness is unbelievable,” she said. And as a long-term worker in the food industry, she’s impressed by the high quality and presentation of the food. “They have fine chefs,” she said, but most importantly, “they do it with their heart.”

Volunteers make LexEAT Together possible! Clockwise from left: 3-Bruce Ward, Shailini Sisodia, Toby Ward, Daniel Palant and Barbara Palant.


“I think I have fallen into a little heaven,” said Mary. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you are – there’s a comfortableness, nobody’s haughty.” “This is our night out,” said Amiralian. “We could never afford to go out to eat.” She gives a warm welcome to a young man in his twenties who takes the seat next to her. He lives in neighboring Douglas House, a facility that provides independent affordable housing for brain injury survivors.

At another table was a group of Mandarin-speaking Chinese guests, all residents of Lexington’s Greeley Village, with their volunteer interpreter Ming-Chin Lin, who runs a senior daycare center in Billerica. “It’s very good to get together, we’re very happy, and we’re here to learn the culture and manners of America,” said Ziying Shi, who moved here over ten years ago from Shanghai to be with her daughter and family.

A Hard Place to be Hard Up

LET founders Laura Derby, Harriet Kaufman and John Bernhard saw how deprivation can escape notice in an affluent community, as volunteers with Lift Up Lexington, a group that supported homeless families parked temporarily in local motels. In 2104, having brought George Murnaghan of Redeemer’s vestry committee on board, they took a year to research and plan their response to the problems of food insecurity and social isolation in Lexington and surrounding towns.

After wide consultation with town officials and community groups, and research visits to other towns’ meal programs, including those in Concord, (where Harriet Kaufman volunteered for 25 years) Bedford and Chelmsford, the group inaugurated a weekly dinner in the newly refurbished community room at Our Redeemer, with its adjacent commercial kitchen. As an independent 501 (c) 3 non-profit with no denominational affiliations, LET pays rent for the space.

Helen Zelinsky with trays of colorful appetizers. COURTESY PHOTO


“It is a little-known, painful and rarely acknowledged truth that some of our neighbors go to bed hungry,” said State Representative Jay Kaufman, at the LET launch in October 2015. According to the non-profit Feeding America, one in ten people, and one in seven children in Massachusetts struggle with hunger.

Even in Lexington, where the average annual household income in 2015 topped $150,000, around 1200 residents live at or below the poverty level, some 200 households receive fuel assistance, over 70 residents use food pantries and eight percent of school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. And these figures likely understate the level of financial hardship in a high-cost town like Lexington. “People’s circumstances can change very quickly, with sickness, unemployment, or divorce,” noted Harriet Kaufman (no relation to State Representative Kaufman.)

Baked into the LET recipe from the start was a commitment to an open-door policy, and to respect for the privacy of all guests. At LET dinners, there is no sign-in, no need to give a name or address – though guests can choose to write their first name on a stick-on label at the welcome table. “Who needs to know if you’re from Bedford or Lexington?” said Head Chef, Bruce Lynn. “If you start asking questions like that, people feel uncomfortable.” Murnaghan estimates that around 60 per cent of guests come from Lexington and neighboring communities, with some making “quite long journeys on public transport” from towns further afield.

Waste and Want – The Food Link Connection

The flip side of the US hunger emergency (one in seven Americans is food insecure) is a colossal mountain of wasted food. That forgotten bag of salad lurking in your refrigerator is part of an estimated 52 million tons of food that end up in landfill every year, together with another 10 million tons discarded or left unharvested, according to ReFED|Rethink Food Waste (www.refed.com.)

Arlington-based food rescue organization Food Link, Inc., founded in March 2012 by DeAnne Dupont and Julie Kremer, seeks to combat this cycle of waste and want. Their mission is to divert potentially wasted food to people who can use it. With over one hundred volunteers and two paid staffers, Food Link organizes the daily collection of high-quality fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy, bread and prepared foods that would otherwise be wasted from 12 local grocery and prepared food stores, and delivers this daily haul to 30 social service agencies serving people in need.

Kerry Brandin with strawberry soup. COURTESY PHOTO


In LET’s planning phase, Lexington resident and Food Link volunteer and board member Ivan Basch immediately grasped the potential synergy between the two projects. He offered to source a proportion of LET’s needs from Food Link donors, who include Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods Market, Panera Bread and other smaller specialty stores.

“They tell me what they want, then I get as much as I can from Food Link, and go shopping for whatever else is needed,” said Basch in a recent phone conversation. (Sometimes the source is as local as his garden, as in the case of a recent order of chives.) Under the oversight of Head Chef Bruce Lynn (who also volunteers for Food Link), LET’s chefs get their menus and weekly shopping lists to Basch by noon on Sundays, and he gathers as much as possible from Food Link, then buys the rest with an LET charge card.

Depending on the menu and on the week’s donations, rescued food makes up between 60 and 80 percent of LET’s food costs, Lynn and Basch estimate. Other costs include venue rental, kitchen equipment and insurance. Once a month during the school year, from September to June, LET also purchases a ready-prepared meal from the Minuteman High School Culinary Arts Program.

“I really love the Lex Eat model, because that’s a value-add to the rescue,” said Basch. “There’s so much love and proficiency in turning the rescued food into a fabulous meal,” he said, noting that LET is “about as far from a soup kitchen as you can get,” with its three-course menus and attention to attractive presentation.

Harriet Kaufman turns rejected bouquets into elegant centerpieces. COURTESY PHOTO


Volunteer Task-force

After retiring as Director of Lexington’s Community Education Program, Robin Tartaglia moved to Cambridge, and followed her passion for food by signing up for a ten-month full-time professional training program at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. From LET’s launch Tartaglia has been part of the team of around six vetted volunteer chefs who run the LET kitchen, plan the menus, devise the detailed shopping lists, organize the volunteer assistant cooks, and oversee the presentation of every plate.

“I’ve learned a great deal,” said Tartaglia. “I’ve learned how to cook these large quantities, and I do love managing the very eager and highly qualified volunteers we get in the kitchen.” (Like most other LET volunteer slots, the Assistant Cook spaces fill up weeks ahead of time, as people vie to wield the industrial-size salad spinner or learn what it takes to make Moroccan Chicken for 70.)

Although adults cook and serve the food, in the set-up and clean-up crews, high-school and middle-school students work alongside parents and grand-parents. Luisa Ozgen regularly superintends room set-up, with a sharp eye for detail and a set of laminated instruction cards to make sure the day’s crew forgets nothing, from switching on the hot water urns to bagging the fresh fruit that every guest takes home.

A healthy meal, lovingly prepared. COURTESY PHOTO


“I like to feel needed, and it’s great to see all these people I’ve known for two years,” said Libby Wallis, head of the clean-up team, as she cheerfully surveyed the remains of chicken noodle soup and battered pork (all food waste is composted or saved for animal feed.) As on many Wednesday evenings, Ed Lidman was methodically feeding the industrial dishwasher. “This was a job I knew,” said Lidman, laughing. By day, he works on data quality at Beth Israel Hospital.

With ten people drying steaming silverware, piling clean plates, rolling away tables, stacking chairs and vacuuming the dining room carpet, clean-up is done by 7:00 p.m. “There’s nothing more basic and human than sitting down and eating with someone else,” said George Murnaghan, “and it’s wonderful to be able to make that happen every week.”

 

To volunteer or donate to Lex Eat Together:
www.lexeattogether.org
To volunteer or donate to Food Link:
www.foodlinkma.org

Share this:

Warning: Unknown: open(/home/content/76/3361076/tmp/sess_ft9clmlvskuafc3gmp689qgis7, O_RDWR) failed: No such file or directory (2) in Unknown on line 0

Warning: Unknown: Failed to write session data (files). Please verify that the current setting of session.save_path is correct () in Unknown on line 0