Apron? Check. Nametag? Check. Plastic gloves … where are they?
A staff person pointed back in the kitchen next to the tray of grilled cheese.
It was 4 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon, and Carleton College sophomore Dia Davis was getting ready for another “Thursday’s Table” family meal at the Community Action Center (CAC) of Northfield. The weekly meal is for any Northfield resident who feels they could benefit from a free, nutritious meal in a family atmosphere.
Davis would have her chance to eat, but for now there were tables to set and drinks to pour. Diners would be arriving within the hour.
“The last couple Thursdays I’ve been thinking about this a lot-all day, in fact-and getting kind of nervous,” Davis said. “But this Thursday, I’m really excited to maybe see the same people or meet new people. It’s a really interesting group, and I’m sure this week it’s going to be completely different.”
During her freshman year at Carleton, Davis spent most of her time adjusting to her new campus surroundings, running cross country and investing time in her coursework. This year, after enrolling in a social welfare course this fall, she felt inspired to get involved in the local community beyond the college campus.
Having worked with the Food Shelf Program near her home in Burlington, Vermont, she took a familiar route and started volunteering at the CAC, which runs the Northfield Food Shelf as well as the weekly Thursday’s Table dinner.
I had decided to start working alongside Davis and a number of other local college and high school students at the event. All volunteers are required sign a waiver promising to keep attendants’ identities confidential.
That night, about 20 of us worked different shifts throughout the evening. As soon as diners began to line up, Davis and I would be manning the dessert cart. My instructions were clear: smile, make everyone feel welcome, and provide the kind of food service one would expect in a four-star restaurant.
As the newest volunteer, I did not know what kind of social dynamic to expect.
“My first week I was a little hesitant to try to get to know the people who come to Thursday’s Table,” Davis said. “I felt like people wouldn’t really meet my eye, both because nobody knew me and because there was this sense that people were standing in line for food out of desperate need.
“I can’t say that I’ve ever been in that position, but I can only imagine how embarrassing it would be,” Davis said.
Attendance at Thursday’s Table has increased since the start of the economic recession. According to CAC Director Jim Blaha, the event currently seats 170 to 200 diners each week. In conjunction with its Food Shelf Program, the CAC serves approximately 1,000 families every month.
“Fifty of these families are the new poor in this recession,” Blaha said. “Immigrant families also comprise up to 40 percent of the case load. Not all of them are documented, but if their stories clarify their poverty, we don’t need to ask. We’ll serve them regardless.”
Thursday’s Table gets between 20 and 30 volunteers each week to prepare and serve food, clean and set tables, and create as welcoming an environment as possible. Some of the workers are also there to eat supper, and they set up and clean up on either side of the window when diners come and go.
But the people who flock to Thursday’s Table get much more than a free meal.
While stories of divorces, machinery accidents, disability and layoffs lingered momentarily in the air, once food was served the atmosphere changed. Suddenly the dining hall was bustling with groups of happy families and friends greeting one another and sharing jokes around foldaway tables.
As I pushed my dessert cart through the throng, delivering cookies and rhubarb bars to each table, Davis would pause and greet the regulars, young and old, who recognized her and introduced her to their friends and family.
“It’s just a really close-knit group of people,” Davis said as we went back to the kitchen to get a fresh batch of bars. “Once, when I sat down at a table, I talked to four or five people, and they were so nice and gracious, and so optimistic.
“If I even try to put myself in their shoes, I just couldn’t do it. Here they are looking ahead to the winter, and they don’t know if they’ll have money to pay the rent. But still they are confident that they will figure something out because that’s their only option. It has been really inspirational.
“If people can look at their lives so optimistically, then the first thing I can do is take time out of my busy day to help them,” Davis said.
Some dinner guests came and went, while others stayed for the entire dinner period. Children wandered from their plates over to the far end of the room to participate in activities organized by the Community Services Division of the Northfield School District.
“Not Just Me”
It was dark when Davis and I headed back to the Carleton College campus.
Three hours had passed, but we found ourselves eagerly awaiting next week’s meal as we drove home, wondering if we would see the same diners again, and work with the same students we had met in the kitchen that day.
The people who visited Thursday’s Table had energized and inspired us. We had helped them get a fulfilling meal, and in return they had given us a new perspective on civic action in Northfield. They’d welcomed us into a cohesive community.
“Each time I leave thinking ‘Wow, I was actually here for three hours and actually doing something useful,'” Davis said. “Then, of course, I come back to college and have to start everything else under the sun. This remains a really great chunk of time when I get to feel like I’m doing something that’s not just for myself.”
Copyright @ 2009 Pressville