“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”
—Martin Luther King, Jr.
Back in 2010, I became a volunteer for cooking classes that taught basic culinary skills and healthy recipes to families on a budget in East Palo Alto. I was new to the Bay area and something about the idea spoke to me.
My job wasn’t glamorous. I wasn’t the instructor chef or the nutritionist. I was the kitchen helper tasked with organizing bags of farmers’ market produce for the families to take home at the end of class and making sure the kids didn’t have an accident with a paring knife. I loved it, and signed up for three of these six-week sessions in the course of a year.
As I would eavesdrop on the day’s nutrition lecture while I counted out broccoli and heads of lettuce into paper grocery bags, I noticed a curious thing: I was learning too! From proper knife handling skills (see: The Claw), to how to chiffonade kale, to the insidious affects of sugar, to what the big deal was with whole grains anyway (complete with a grain diagram).
Each class left me feeling like I’d been to a lively dinner party or family get-together, the kind where everyone chips in to dice the onions and do the dishes, and you get to know each other better in the process. There was a teenage daughter who loved to cook. A pregnant young mother intent on eating healthier for her baby. Rambunctious boys who wanted nothing more than to sever a finger under my watch. Many families who were worried about their weight or diabetes. And others who just wanted to know how to cook with unfamiliar ingredients, such as artichokes or Swiss chard.
So when a friend I met through volunteering asked if I would join the board of directors for Collective Roots, the local nonprofit that hosts these classes, I wholeheartedly agreed.
I’m celebrating my two-year anniversary with Collective Roots this August. To mark the occasion, I’m hosting a fundraiser, an ambitious one at that. My goal is to raise $1,000 for Collective Roots and their programs by the end of this month.
I have come to believe deeply in this organization’s mission to provide access to fresh food for all. They run the East Palo Alto farmers’ market. They teach fruit tree pruning classes and have grants to give away saplings to residents. They created a garden at the local charter school that tickles the imagination and use it to teach classroom and after-school programming. They provide community pea patches, greenhouse space, gardening tools, and even seeds at the public library.
They are undoing what is broken in the modern American food system, which had left East Palo Alto without a single grocery store until 2009. (And recent murmurs of bankruptcy among the Mi Pueblo grocery chain could return it to that condition.)
There’s a term called “food justice” that is sometimes thrown around in the sustainable food field. It smacks with a certain radicalism, but it isn’t. It’s the most basic notion: Access to fresh fruits, vegetables, and home-cooked food shouldn’t be a class privilege any more than fresh air or fresh water.