The Nashville Food Project partners with Trinity United Methodist Church to offer a weekly meal which serves about 50 people. It provides an opportunity for people to get to know one another. Photo courtesy of the Nashville Food Project
The Nashville Food Project tackles hunger as a symptom of poverty, with a multifaceted approach that includes gardens, food trucks, community partners and a sense of respect for people in need.
The complexities of hunger simply can’t be solved by a free bowl of soup.
But when a meal is grown, prepared and shared with a side of respect, a sense of community and a blurring of lines between those giving and those receiving, food can become a tool for lasting change.
“We can’t solve the whole problem of hunger and poverty ourselves,” said Tallu Schuyler Quinn, the executive director of the Nashville Food Project. “But we can do our part.”
Quinn is sitting by the sunny window in her office, in view of a thriving half-acre garden. She is blond, blue-eyed and fresh-faced, expecting her second child in the fall.
Talk to her for a moment and the communal, mutually respectful relationship between the organization and its surroundings will come as no surprise; the Nashville Food Project has strategically aligned itself with numerous area nonprofits and organizations.
The idea, Quinn said, is not only to provide food but also to provide it humbly, helping other organizations carry out their missions to combat poverty, meet needs and inspire compassionate action as well.
“We don’t want to try to do what they do. Instead, it’s a question of, ‘How can we help you do what you do better?’”
Combatting hunger, isolation, lack of access
Helping partners do what they do means that formerly incarcerated residents of a halfway house work alongside suburban empty nesters and business professionals in preparing and delivering meals. Residents of a financially challenged area of town help Nashville Food Project volunteers set tables with plates and silverware before sitting down to a weekly family-style supper.
And a group of elders from Nepal, still-new refugees to the city, are able to work their own plot of land in one of the project’s two gardens, growing organic food for their community, learning farming best practices and taking part in weekly English classes.
Hunger is a symptom of poverty. But isolation and lack of access to assistance compound the problem -- and the Nashville Food Project works to improve all three.
“Everything we do here is antithetical to the way the world typically works,” Quinn said. Rather than doing things “for,” the project focuses on doing “with.” There’s a sense of universal hospitality, as well as an emphasis on gleaning all available resources.
The Nashville Food Project partners with about 20 local farms, area farmers’ markets, a nearby Whole Foods and even hunters who offer venison to supplement the thousands of pounds of produce harvested from the organization’s gardens each year.
Quinn’s office, the garden and the organization’s commercial-style kitchen sit on a back corner of the campus of Woodmont Christian Church, where Quinn also serves as a member of the ministerial staff. The church offers free rent and provides financial support and volunteers (as do other congregations), but the organization is secular.
“One in 6 people don’t have access to enough healthy food,” Quinn said. “But more than 40 percent of all food in this country goes to waste. When I think about those two things together, there’s a lot that can be done. … At the Nashville Food Project, we are trying to break down any assumption that, as the book ‘Common Prayer [A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals]’ says, ‘bread is only for the fortunate, water only for the lucky, and freedom only for the strong.’”
The organization does measure meals served, volunteers engaged and pounds of produce grown. Members of the staff, however, realize that those bits of data don’t really convey whether fewer people are going to bed hungry or whether there will be less poverty long-term. Instead, “success” is measured in relationships built and support provided.
“When folks who are meal recipients, or could be, volunteer in our gardens and kitchens to help grow and prepare the food that goes out on our trucks, we count that as one kind of a successful relationship, a desirable outcome,” said Christina Bentrup, the project’s garden coordinator. “It means that someone who was hungry in isolation helped to feed someone else and was able to become a part of a solution. When any volunteer engages in the many roles that go toward sharing a meal, that person is building relationships with food and farmers, with those who are hungry and others who have plenty.
“Bringing people to the table in thoughtful actions around food and community may not eliminate hunger and poverty, but it helps reduce the loneliness and isolation of these.”
Adds outreach coordinator Grace Biggs: “We all work in a way that each ‘small’ change is enough.”
The Nashville Food Project started in 2007 as an arm of the Austin, Texas-based Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a social outreach organization that provides food and clothing to those experiencing homelessness. In those early years, two catering trucks were purchased, and sack lunches were delivered to homeless camps numerous days each week.
Five years in, however, the local advisory board made a move toward independence, to focus more specifically on healthy food options and to keep all funds raised in the Nashville area.
More than 100,000 people in metropolitan Nashville lack access to enough food to sustain a healthy lifestyle, and food insecurity continues to grow with rising costs of living, low wages, poverty and unemployment.
“We wanted to be a local nonprofit, locally funded, working to solve local problems,” Quinn said. The Nashville Food Project, officially founded in October 2011, now addresses hunger through its gardens, its kitchen and its trucks, believing that access to healthy food is more a right than a privilege.
It typically serves 2,400-2,800 meals each month (more than 4,000 per month in the winter), and lessons are still being learned. For example, project leaders realized that the gardens can be used primarily for teaching or producing but not both -- and producing to meet the need had to be the priority.
Quinn, who came to the project from Nicaragua, where she was living and working with poor farmers on food security issues, led the organization through the change. But its advisory council -- a diverse group that includes representatives of communities being served -- continues to guide its path.
Nate Paulk, a council member, is a community organizer based at Trinity United Methodist Church. At the time he began the job, the Nashville Food Project was delivering meals to transient, low-income communities, but organizers wanted to develop deeper relationships with those receiving the food.
Part of Paulk’s job description was to figure out ways that the Trinity church building -- a large facility whose flourishing congregation of the 1950s and ’60s had dwindled to a handful of elderly stalwarts no longer representative of the community -- could best be used.
So Paulk and outreach coordinator Biggs envisioned Tuesday-night sit-down suppers at the church, with food provided by the Nashville Food Project.
The meal now draws an average of 50 people each week. A recent gathering featured sausage casserole, squash and zucchini, with s’mores bars for dessert, all made from scratch.
“The food is awesome,” he said. “But they’re not just coming for the food, which is incredible.”
Volunteers from the community quickly mix with those from the project to set up, serve, start topics of conversations at each table and even do dishes afterward. There is a prayer and welcome from Paulk, but no official service -- just a focus on getting to know one another.
“I spend a lot of time just asking people questions,” said Paulk, who has been working in the neighborhood since April 2013. “There’s the sense that, ‘Oh man, these are really needy people.’
“But if you ask me how many people who come to the meal are needy, my answer will be, ‘All of us.’ We all have needs, whether social or physical nourishment, or the need to feel heard or to feel important.”
Partnering with the Nashville Food Project helps Paulk meet physical needs first, and potentially to meet other needs as well. It hasn’t all been easy; there’s been some tension as the small congregation has had to learn how to open its doors. But they’re making progress in welcoming others in.
Meanwhile, across town, the Nashville Food Project provides Saturday lunches for Front Porch Ministry, a nonprofit that seeks to help kids and single mothers by building relationships. In 2004, founders Thom and Michele Hazelip bought a condemned house that was surrounded by Section 8 housing. They’ve since gained nonprofit status -- in addition to years of insight.
The Hazelips have four children of their own, and their home has become resource central for the community, offering neighborhood kids a place to hang out, work on school projects, shoot hoops, do crafts, get rides to the grocery and more.
On Saturdays, the Nashville Food Project truck typically delivers 120 meals, which the Hazelips could not provide on their own. After lunch, the Hazelips offer activities for the kids.
“There’s something about the concept of gathering together and eating that just feels like family,” Michele Hazelip said. “It meets both physical and emotional needs.” Living out their faith means offering a welcoming space, she said, and the relationships fostered have brought change.
“Several kids have wanted to be baptized,” she said. “And we’ve seen moms make changes in their lives, too, through having more positive influences. You can’t really have an impact on someone unless you have a relationship with them.” That takes time. And food offers a reason to spend it together.
Throughout each week, the Nashville Food Project provides meals at 14 sites, each serving a unique community. There are Wednesday lunches, for example, at Operation Stand Down, which offers Nashville-area veterans a variety of services.
“This is perfect for this community,” said Derrick McDade Sr., a Vietnam vet who recently stood in line for a freshly prepared taco salad. “It’s easy to feel like there’s nobody there to lift you up. But with this, we can communicate. We can have empathy for each other.”
Here, he said, he’s surrounded by people who don’t need an explanation of what he has been through. Others are not always so kind, still fearful of potential psychological damage or substance abuse. The meal helps draw out the veterans, visiting even briefly in the warm noonday sun.
In the colder months, additional meals are made for winter warming shelters. Regardless of the season, Anne Sale, the meals coordinator, plans diverse menus from whatever happens to be available, overseeing a volunteer staff of regular cooks and prep help to bring it together.
A recent meal, for example, was turkey tetrazzini with mustard greens, chard and kale; a salad fresh from the garden; and strawberry bread pudding made from the day-old bakery bread and 150 pounds of strawberries that had just come in.
Her toughest challenges yet? Quince -- a hard, pear-shaped fruit -- and fiddlehead ferns.
“Thank God for the Internet,” she said. “We can Google anything. There are always random vegetables, but potpies can be very forgiving.”
As for the project’s own gardens, in addition to the one right outside Quinn’s office window, there’s another tucked away in a residential neighborhood downtown. Wedgewood Urban Garden, a one-and-a-half-acre space filled with rows of organic fruits, vegetables and herbs, offers volunteers, students, community members and refugees the chance to learn and to create. But it also is a place to gain ownership in meeting daily needs and discover a sense of pride and independence.
A third of the space is allotted for the Nashville Food Project kitchen, a third for the community and a third for the refugees, with plans to expand in coming years.
Bentrup walks through the rows, pointing out various crops and describing sustainable practices. The garden is on two levels, and the portion closest to the street includes herbs such as sage, basil, oregano, horseradish and thyme.
It also includes medicinal and flowering plants such as yarrow, comfrey, poppies and lamb’s ear. The herbs and flowers add to the garden’s aesthetic appeal and help create the right environment for pollination and beneficial insects.
But sometimes, alongside the food, the flowers are handed out in bouquets, she said -- an added touch of humanity and beauty.
Though the Nashville Food Project is not a faith-based program, “you definitely feel as if you are among those who are faith-based,” said longtime weekly volunteer Marilyn Lane. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be the same faith. It’s just joyous. We can have Muslims and Jews and Baptists and Catholics, and we’re all working together to make our community a little bit better, a little bit stronger.”
Quinn, the minister, is of like mind. In the midst of all the planning, the community, the growing, the preparation and the serving, she sees sacrament.
“All of this ordinary work of digging in the dirt, peeling potatoes and scraping plates teaches us about something holy,” she said. “Sharing food is an outward and ages-old symbol of an inward and sacred grace. A rabbi colleague of mine told me of the Jewish tradition on Shabbat to keep the challah covered with a beautiful cloth until after the wine is drunk and shared. If this is the care we are to take with the bread, imagine the kind of care and compassion we are to take with one another.”