By Lyndsey Haight, Executive Director, Our Neighbors' Table
“I’ve done everything I can to not have to come here. I’m sorry. I will only take a few things and hopefully won’t have to come too often.” These are the words that we hear almost universally from people coming to get food at Our Neighbors’ Table for the first time. The sacrifices guests make before they walk into our doors for the first time - from cutting out fresh fruits and vegetables, to putting groceries on credit cards, skipping prescription refills in order to buy groceries, or simply not eating for days on end so their children can eat – are substantial. Yet, walking through the door to ask for help is never easy.
If you’ve been to an ONT volunteer orientation, you’ve heard the stories; if you’ve volunteered at ONT, you’ve witnessed the guilt, shame and fear first-hand. You also understand it is our number one goal to make every single person feel welcomed and to lift the fear and feelings that may prevent them from coming back.
ONT’s work was founded on the values of Service with Dignity, Community and Respect. Our founders welcomed their neighbors to break bread together so no one went hungry, but more importantly to ensure no one felt they had to go it alone. For 28 years, ONT has been powered by helpers doing what they can, sharing what they have, and lifting each other up along the way, resulting in, perhaps, the first food-secure city in the nation. As they say, rising tides raise all ships. Even after nearly three decades, the perseverance of these values takes work. In 2011, we took the time to articulate them, make them part of our long-term strategies. In 2015, we began and continue training all of our staff and volunteers – new and tenured – to put these values into action. Every day, we ask ourselves if our decisions are aligned with these values and we expect our guests, our community to call us out if we go astray.
I love to meet new people and welcome them into our mission. Giving tours and sharing our work is a favorite part of my job. I’ve had the opportunity to sit with new guests and donors alike. And there is a striking difference in the conversations. While just about every guest tries to qualify their request for help, almost every single tour includes the questions: “How do you make sure people really need the help? Do they have to qualify?” In the course of 20 years, I have come to see there are various experiences that compel people to ask this question. Usually, those experiences are 3rd party, stories told, of someone taking advantage of the system. The person in line at the grocery store using food stamps to buy liquor. The breeding of dependency if we let people collect welfare. Maybe they are first-hand: ‘I know Mr. So-and-So comes to your dinner every week but he has money to buy his own food’. There are lots of different perceptions about people who ask for help. It has also been my experience that one shift at ONT getting to know your neighbors who shop here for food quickly replaces those perceptions with relationships, connectedness and, alas, a sense of community. I understand all this. The unknown. A knowledge vacuum filled in with information that may or may not be based in real life, but it fills a void until something else can.
But there is something else inherent in the questions about qualifying people to receive help. This question is rooted in the assumption that the help is mine to decide whether or not to share; that I have the power and authority – the right – to decide whether or not someone is worthy to receive food. This power dynamic is inevitable in every charitable food system dependent on the goodwill of a few. At the very core of Our Neighbors’ Table is the belief and practice that we are all deserving; that none of us is more or less deserving to receive help; and none of us is more or less deserving to control when and where help is given. The community invests its time and treasure in our mission because we all agree that food needs to be available to everyone and the community entrusts us to do just that. While many give to our mission under charitable motives, those who sustain our work know we are much more than a charitable food assistance organization; we strive toward universal food security, toward a just food system that serves us all. This can only be achieved when those of us who hold power over resources recognize that power and relinquish it and allow others to gain their own access.
True, we carry the burden of only having resources to serve 12 communities when we know our neighboring cities and towns could also use the help. We truly struggle with this every day we turn someone away. But, we have found a way to ensure that our region’s resources are distributed and available universally and our work every day is to achieve that to the best of our ability.
In the last month, we have all heard (and maybe even shouted) the cries for an end to racism and the systemic racism that permeates every aspect of American life. Many are organizing or continue their work centuries in the making, many others may be reflecting at home wondering what role might you have played, or what role you can play now. If you’re reading this, and wondering what you can do, I offer what we, at ONT, have come to know and strive to practice every day as it comes to serving our mission