By Maya Parson Photography By Peter Metzger 0000-00-00 00:00:00
Monroe Park Co-op in South Bend Volunteers at Our Lady of the Road (744 S. Main St., South Bend) – a drop-in center for the homeless and others down-on-their-luck – follow this "recipe" every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, serving 100 to 150 guests fresh local food at each meal. Our Lady also houses a food cooperative, the Monroe Park Grocery Coop, selling everything from local organic greens and handmade nut butters to Amish eggs and baked goods at reduced cost – all part of building a healthier community, one hungry belly at a time. BREAKING BREAD Our Lady of the Road began serving free breakfasts and providing showers, laundry facilities and a clothes closet to those in need in 2006. The food co-op was launched in 2011. Both were organized by the local Catholic Worker community, part of an international network of faith-based communities dedicated to nonviolence, compassion and human dignity. Volunteers from local churches, universities and the Monroe Park neighborhood staff the kitchen and the co-op. Local farms and businesses – including Prairie Winds Farm, Hovenkamp Produce, Johnson Produce, Breadsmith and many others – donate food or sell it at reduced cost. The center also grows its own squash, tomatoes, corn and other vegetables in a Unity Garden on the property. On the morning of one of my visits, the breakfast service was in full swing and a dozen volunteers (mostly in their 20s and early 30s) shuttled steaming plates of "egg bake" and pancakes and cups of black coffee to the crowded tables. I sat with three guests and Mary Ann Wilson, a graduate student at Notre Dame who volunteers with her husband, Ben, at the center every Saturday. Mary Ann held the couple's infant son in her arms and chit-chatted with the guests about their lives and the food on their plates. (There was some disagreement about the presence of vegetables in the egg bake, but all agreed the food was tasty.) Many guests, like gray-haired veteran Richard O'Grady, come three days a week for breakfast. Decked out in military fatigues in preparation for the Niles Apple Festival parade, O'Grady gabbed with friends over breakfast and told me about his service in Vietnam: He was one of the first troops deployed in the early 1960s. Today, he can't afford to repair his home – currently deemed uninhabitable by the city – and makes do with the help of local charities. TAKING CARE OF EACH OTHER In the no-frills but functional kitchen, volunteer Colette Bigi told me about the four dozen carrot muffins she'd baked at home for the center's guests before coming in for her shift. I asked her why she spends her weekends cooking and cleaning for folks like Richard O'Grady. Her words were soft but full of moral conviction: "Part of what you do as a human being living on this Earth is take care of each other." That ethos is at the heart of the Catholic Worker community in South Bend. Local Catholic Worker co-founder Margaret Pfeil, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, describes the work of Our Lady as a way of practicing the mercy and "hospitality" exemplified in the teachings of Jesus. (Though rooted in Catholic faith, Our Lady welcomes anyone in need and the co-op is open to people of all religious and socioeconomic backgrounds.) FROM FOOD DESERT TO OASIS Like many low-income areas, the Monroe Park neighborhood – a dilapidated stretch of once-gracious older homes on the edge of downtown – struggles with violence, drug-related crime and vandalism. Before the co-op, Monroe Park was what food security experts call a "food desert": The local "grocery" was a gas station mini-mart. Members of the Catholic Worker community saw these problems firsthand because they live in voluntary poverty in the neighborhood. (Members share group homes and communal meals, often inviting neighbors or others in need to join them for supper.) Their goals when launching the co-op were therefore twofold: making good food accessible and creating "social cohesion" – bringing together people of different social backgrounds to build a stronger, healthier neighborhood and city. Today, the co-op has over 200 members, half of whom are low income. (Approximately a quarter of the co-op's sales come from food stamps.) Members pay a modest fee ($15 to $35 per year) to join, or volunteer three hours a month. Coming together over food at the co-op, Pfeil says, is "humanizing." "People connect around food and recipes; they talk about their children and grandchildren. These are things that just wouldn't happen in a big supermarket. . . . These interactions are so important to making a safer, healthier community." The Monroe Park Grocery Co-op and Drop-in Center welcome new members, donations and volunteers. For more information, contact Margaret Pfeil at 574-520-7745 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Maya Parson is a recent transplant to Michiana and convert to the joys of eating local pastured meats and farm-fresh milk and eggs. A cultural anthropologist and home cook, she has enjoyed living and eating in Northern California, the Pacific Northwest, the Basque country, Nicaragua, North Carolina and on Long Island. She can be found most Saturday mornings at the Goshen Farmers Market. LOCAL GROUPS TO HOST TRANSITION GATHERING Building a healthier community around local food is a big job. To address the challenge, the Monroe Park Grocery Co-op – with the support of the Center for Social Concerns at the University of Notre Dame – recently launched the Michiana Food Security Coalition, a network of individuals and organizations dedicated to increasing local food security and resilience. In January, the co-op and the Food Security Coalition will host Transition Michiana at the Kroc Center in South Bend. Anyone interested in sustainability and building a stronger local community and economy is invited to attend the January 24–26 conference. The Transition Movement focuses on recognizing, strengthening and utilizing local resources and building local economic and social resilience. Topics at the gathering will include local food production, distribution and preservation skills; transportation; job creation; energy production; engaging government and institutions around sustainability issues; sustainability education and strengthening community relationships. Michiana Food Security Coalition: http://blogs.nd.edu/food-security-coalition/2012/07/21/welcome/
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