By Susan Hoffmann
Photos by Dwight Hilpman
After Christmas one year, a food bank in Lawrence, Kansas, received an unexpected phone call. Local trash collectors reported finding frozen turkeys, the ones placed in holiday food baskets, tossed in the trash.
The food bank, Just Food, surveyed their clients to find out why. It turned out that there wasn’t one answer, but many:
Some clients didn’t have big enough ovens or ovens at all. Some didn’t know how to thaw a frozen turkey. Others didn’t have refrigerators or pans that were big enough to roast turkeys.
Food wasn’t the problem here. Cooking it was.
Working with a local chef, Rick Martin, Just Food developed a program called “Just Cook.” Chef Martin was ideally suited to create the program. He grew up in a low-income family and often prepared meals when his mother worked late. She taught him what he now teaches clients: how to make a healthy meal with inexpensive yet nutritious ingredients.
Just Food clients can enroll in their cooking classes, free of charge. And, if they want to grow their own food, they can lease a garden plot outside the pantry at no cost as well. That program, “Just Grow,” matches a master gardener with clients to plan a successful garden.
One program often leads to another, and after setting up the first garden plots, Just Food found land across the river in North Lawrence to set up what Elizabeth Keever, the executive director of the nonprofit, calls an “incubator farm” on an acre of land. Clients who want to farm for a living can start here. Last year one particular client enjoyed such a successful year at the Farmer’s Market that “for next year,” Keever said, “he’s signed a contract with a local restaurant to be the sole grower for the products that they like.”
Just Food is a volunteer-based nonprofit, funded almost entirely by local donations. Last year, 700 volunteers donated 18,000 hours. Keever’s small staff of four paid employees is the engine behind their success. “The role of the paid staff is to figure out how to leverage manpower,” she said. One person brings in volunteers. Another focuses on food acquisition. Just Food increased their donated food by over 400 percent when a paid staff member was hired to oversee that program.
Much of this food is collected through a food recovery program. “It’s widely known,” Keever said, “that nationwide, 40 percent of food is thrown away.” It’s tossed out by grocery stores, convenience stores, restaurants, and farms. Just Food works with local businesses to explain how long food is good, even when it’s past the “sell-by” date. That food is now being donated to Just Food, upwards of 2,500 pounds a day.
Because of its small size, Just Food can quickly turn around the food, meaning their clients can shop for fresh produce, whole-grain breads, milk, and meat most days of the week. And next to these products, shoppers may find fruits and vegetables donated by local farms. “A farmer down the road has my cell phone number,” Keever said, “and will call me if his sweet potatoes need to be picked.”
When Just Food formed, less than ten years ago, it had a singular goal of collecting and distributing food to low-income residents in Douglas County, which is home to family farms, small communities and the sprawling campus of the University of Kansas. Out of this diversity—both of needs and community support—Just Food has become a local hub of ideas on how to fight hunger through education, better access to nutritious food, and work opportunities. Their growth hasn’t been without setbacks. One appeared in 2016, and not from a food-related problem.
A former director, Jeremy Farmer, was charged that year with embezzling funds from Just Food; he was later convicted and sentenced. Just Food fought to recover from this blow, to raise funds to cover their losses and rebuild the community’s trust.
Through it all, Chef Martin has remained a loyal supporter of Just Food. Since he first developed Just Cook in 2012, he has trained teachers and occasionally teaches a course himself. At Thanksgiving, he shows clients how to cook the ingredients in their holiday food boxes—including that frozen turkey.
Lately, Martin has found a new point of intersection between the goals of Just Food and the needs of local restaurants, one of which is his award-winning Limestone Pizza Kitchen Bar. Working in a university town, restaurant owners struggle with training and keeping employees, many of whom are students.
“Rick came to us with an idea,” said Keever. “He said, ‘I bet you have a lot of people that you serve who need a second chance at a career.’” A new program called KitchenWorks emerged. Now in its pilot phase, the five-day program trains people to get jobs in the culinary industry. Students receive a certificate of employment eligibility at the end of the course. Two students in the first class found jobs in local restaurants.
On a rainy fall afternoon, Chef Martin met with students in the second class. “Coming through!” one student shouted, using the heads-up term to alert others that he was moving across the kitchen. The students were learning how to brown meat that day. “Nicely done!” Chef Martin said to Len Wright, admiring the caramelized crust he’d created on the pork chop, still sizzling in the skillet.
“You can see the rewards,” Wright said of his cooking, adding that he’s always enjoyed cooking for his friends and family. “Now I can take my skills into the community.”
This is what food justice looks like in Lawrence, Kansas. “We don’t want to just feed the line,” explained Keever. “We want to end it.”
Susan Hoffmann lives in California, where she writes personal essays inspired by her family. She has retired from a long career in art museum education, having written educational materials and taught classes for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She also wrote promotional materials for the California Institute of Technology and the Art Center College of Design, where she taught courses on modern art. Hoffmann’s work has been published by Literary Mama and Gravel; her essay “A Boy Like Mine” was a finalist in the Tenth Glass Woman Prize. She recently launched a blog inspired by letters her grandfather wrote home 100 years ago, during his service in World War 1: ww1betweenthelines.com.
Copyright © 500 Pens. January 2018