Every day this summer I entered and exited these same double doors to the full-production kitchen at the Lowcountry Food Bank in Charleston, SC. Inside these doors is a kitchen full of volunteers, one head Chef, and one part-time foodservice employee working to produce roughly 7,000 meals a week to feed every one of the counties that make up the “lowcountry” of South Carolina. The meals produced out of this kitchen fall under many different government programs, may be part of a current pilot project, are made by the hands of volunteers, high-schoolers hoping to start their culinary career, dietetic interns, culinary interns and are funded by too many grants to name in one sitting. It’s chaos really, if you think about it, but somehow it all works.
I’ll admit that the phrase “repairing the world” above the kitchen entrance didn’t catch much of my attention when I started at the food bank, but now it is a daily phrase that runs through my head. I didn’t truly understand what it meant until I knew more about how the kitchen came to be. This kitchen was funded only a few years ago by philanthropist and business woman Anita Zucker. “tikkum olam” directly translates from Hebrew to “repair of the world.” Thus, we get our English phrase.
After some research, I found that Zucker and her husband were both of strong Jewish descent- Anita was the child of Holocaust survivors!- and that they both led a life of sharing their wealth with worthy causes. “Repairing the world” or “tikkum olam” calls one to act for social justice.
As the summer went on, my eyes were open wider to just how our world and its systems are broken. Our food system is broken. All people do not have equal access to food. All people do not have equal access to food. Adequate nutrition cannot be met by all. All people do not enjoy the experience of cooking or eating. Families have to rely on government programs for sustenance. Not everyone has transportation. Health is not a priority, even if it was, it is SO hard to achieve for SO many. I could go on. It’s just not fair. Things are broken.
We recognize that something is going wrong in our food system and with our people and that even our most vulnerable populations (children, seniors) aren’t getting the food they need to live happy and healthy lives. There’s a human instinct we have to act and pull our forces together for good if we see another hurting/struggling. That’s exactly what the role of a food bank has taken on.
At some point while working at the food bank, I looked outside of my situation and saw the food bank for what it was or what it seemed like to me. I began to see other social justice organizations in the same metaphorical way.
Imagine a huge anthill, filled with thousands of ants, all hurriedly working together to achieve a common goal. Scrambling actually. Employees of these social service agencies like the food bank are like ants. Working together to fix something broken, solve problems, feed people right and left, make community partners, thinking of new and creative projects, fundraising, using their resources, and communicating with others and one another all to achieve a common goal. The scrambling of people and resources is the exact picture I had in my head. A little hectic.
I came to understand that this kitchen was doing more than allowing people to cook meals, but it was a tool in repairing our broken world. This kitchen allows this organization to serve healthy, balanced lunches to kids every day who might not have eaten a single fresh fruit or vegetable that day. THAT is important. This kitchen allows volunteers and retirees to do good with their free time. THAT is important. It employs people and stimulates the economy, also very important. It allows employees to have a meaningful and self-fulfilling career; one that they feel good doing.
The food bank and other organizations like it truly are “repairing the world” but they must be challenged to go about that repair smarter. We must get to the root of problems like food insecurity and address and break the cycle of poverty that is causing folks have a negative cascade of health events.
I challenge you to look critically at the organizations you volunteer in, own, worship at and support. Are they putting a band-aid on the problem they are addressing or are they bringing to forefront the underlying factors?