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Moab's Free Meal

Connection and Community Through Food

Found in: | Inside | Wellness |

Spaghetti noodles. Bamboo shoots. Arugula. Bok choy. Whole roasted chickens. Celery. A can of green beans. These are Katherine Hunter's raw materials. When I arrive, she has them lined up on her counter. She observes them with an air of bemused concentration.

"Should I use the green beans?" she asks, not really asking. Then, "No. I hate canned green beans. They're not going in."

Katherine once owned her own restaurant called Everybody's Mother. Though the restaurant is closed, she still embodies the name. She finds herself cooking for groups again. For free. Every aspect of it is free.

In fact, it's called Free Meal.

"I love to cook," says Katherine, a spritely 75-year-old whose sparkling eyes and wry smile speak to years on the road less traveled. "This is a combination of being very personal and very not personal. I'm not doing this to please anyone," ¬? this is in contrast to her restaurateur days ¬? "I just want to make sure people eat."

She explains this as she bustles about her kitchen clad in a housedress and apron. She seems a throwback to another era, even as the kitchen itself speaks a language 50 years old with its décor and design. A phenomenal pasta dish is emerging before my eyes.

Katherine cooks twice a week for Moab's Free Meal. This program offers a free lunch to the entire community seven days a week. The Sun Court ¬? a basketball court and common area situated squarely between Moab City offices and the county buildings on Center Street ¬? houses the daily event. Usually, two to three dozen people are served ¬? people from all walks, from all points along the socioeconomic spectrum, from all backgrounds. Writers and doctors. The tenuously housed homeless. Artists and river rats. Navajos. Latinos. People on the fringe, beyond the fringe, and those firmly at the center of Moab life.

It is more than a desire for lunch that draws in this diverse group. Free Meal offers community, the filaments of connection through food.

In Katherine's kitchen, I help mix the arugula into her impromptu Asian-esque pasta dish. The green beans are the only lonely can remaining on the formica countertop.

"The challenge for me is making meals with things you don't usually use," she says.

Katherine ticks off all the ways she's made potato soup recently: with baked potatoes, mashed potatoes, potatoes au gratin, fried potatoes. She's thought of making a Free Meal cookbook, including recipes that detail what to do with a dozen baked potatoes.

Free Meal is entirely volunteer-driven and receives all its food through generous donations from restaurants and individuals. Volunteers go on food pick-ups each day, hitting the school cafeterias, the food counter at the Chevron station, Zax Pizza, Eclektica, Center Café, and more. Cooperating restaurants gladly give up food that would otherwise go to the landfill. Such sustenance gets new life and deep appreciation with Free Meal. When members of the community pass away, sometimes their pantries are donated. Still others give of their cupboard-cleaning castoffs. The stream of unwanted food is constant. Now it has a place to go, bellies to fill, community to build.

"Sometimes we get these donations that make you feel rich ¬? rich in food," says Katherine.

We take the pans of pasta to the Sun Court at noon. Brandie McCullough, today's host, has already set up the tables, set out the bowls and utensils, and displayed her delicious assortment of homemade quiches, cornbread and cookies. We also have watermelon, pizza and a salad. It feels like an impossible amount of food for the few people milling around.

And then our strip of lawn fills up. Slices of quiche quickly disappear. Both pans of pasta are decimated. The cornbread becomes crumbs. Animated conversation fills the air. One dialog covers the philosophical underpinnings of monotheism. Another delves into the ethics of monkeywrenching. Still another is concerned with health issues. I forget that I am there to observe. I engage. The food is delicious, but it is the human interaction that brings a smile to my lips. With a full belly, I already hunger to return, to be a participant and recipient in this community.

These are all familiar faces to me ¬? Dave, Charlie, Dewey, Bob ¬? but they have only ever been faces. Never multidimensional people. Now I have a chance to see them for their desires and dreams and feel the weight of their substance.

One regular attendee is Dave Larson. He's been dubbed the Mayor of Free Meal. He presides over the lunch with an air of authority ¬? making the rounds, engaging with everyone, brainstorming new sources of food. At Free Meal, Dave is in his element. He shines.

"Philosophically, it's important to gather and be social with no agenda attached to the gathering," explains Dave. "This isn't religious, it isn't political. It's one of the few kinds of gatherings where there's no point of view to make you feel uncomfortable."

"There are certainly people who come here because of need, but the whole spectrum of people participates because it's just a nice place to come for lunch," he adds. "And it's a chance to eat some great food that would otherwise end up in the landfill."

Dave also explains that the perception of Free Meal is important. It's not about charity. It's not a soup kitchen. It's a non-discriminating social gathering.

Brandie, the quiche-maker and today's host, agrees.

"Free Meal isn't about feeding the hungry," she says. "It's about, can you sit next to a homeless person? It's about breaking down a barrier."

I see this in Brandie's demeanor. She is familiar with everyone present. She is just as much a part of this community as the diners are. Her volunteerism does not come from a sense of charity. This is about mutual regard and simple kindness.

Free Meal began two years ago as a three-day-a-week dinner. Those who started Free Meal have now started a family of their own, but another coordinator has stepped forward. August Brooks nurtured the seeds of Free Meal. Under his care, it's grown. He's brought in more restaurants, volunteers and publicity. His garage serves as the Free Meal shed, storing food and supplies. Dishes are cleaned in his kitchen. He is the heart of Free Meal, but he refuses to be its voice. He wants the lunches to speak for themselves.

"It's an exercise in people expanding their area of comfort," says August. "I can't pull you out of your area of comfort. You have to be willing to do that yourself."

As the hour draws to a close with today's Free Meal, a man steps forward to collect leftovers for delivery to others in need. Anything remaining is either fed to the chickens or composted. There is little waste.

Brandie and I pack the tables and dishes into her van and head out to pick up food for the following day. We wash the dishes and store them for tomorrow's round of volunteers. As we stand at the sink together, she explains that, in the summer months, Free Meal is a kindness. In the winter, it's a necessity.

"The really hungry people are there in the winter. Every day. It's really cold, so it becomes the highlight of the day for lots of people. It's a chance to step away ¬? to enjoy friends and a hot meal ¬? before going back to doing what you do to survive another night. It's a chance to come together and check on one another, to make sure everyone's taken care of."

Last winter, a regular Free Meal attendee froze to death while spending the night near the river. Another committed suicide this year. Such events have drawn the community closer. There is now an unspoken code amongst diners to watch out for one another, to ensure that everyone's needs are being met.

There is a proverb that states, "He who eats alone, chokes alone."  Free Meal is one small way to bring a community together at the same table, ensuring that no one eats alone, that no one struggles alone. It ensures that our community continues breathing, is vibrant, alive and whole.

But there is another saying that Free Meal serves to refute.

"There's the idea that there's no such thing as a free lunch," says Katherine with a slight smile. "Well, yes, there is. It's Free Meal."

Jen Jackson is a contributing editor of Inside/Outside Southwest magazine.

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