Mission Memphis Day 25: The Nashville Food Project

The Experience

I lived in Nashville for about a year and when I first moved there, I knew I wanted to spend a good bit of time volunteering and learning about my new city. Through the extensive calendar at Hands on Nashville, I learned about an organization called The Nashville Food Project, which quickly became one of my favorite volunteer opportunities.

The Nashville Food Project is designed to create healthy food and deliver it by truck to the low income areas of Nashville to ensure that everyone regardless of their income has access to a nutritious meal. They food the turn out of that tiny kitchen is amazing – Like summer stir fry with beef or vegetarian lasagna. From the minute I walked into their offices I was hooked! There was fresh produce on every shelf and everything was incredibly well organized. It was clear that the team had fully embraced the idea of providing a rewarding and seamless experience for their volunteers. After a couple times of volunteering, one of the project leaders suggested that I look into becoming a volunteer leader myself so that the Nashville Food Project in cooperation with Hands on Nashville could offer more meals each month. After a little arm twisting (ok definitely no arm twisting required), I signed up to run the project on the fourth Sunday of every month for six months. Two months in, I moved back to Memphis, but I love the project so much that I continue to drive to Nashville each month to work with the project. If my count is correct, Day of Mission Memphis marks my fifth time to lead a group for the Nashville Food Project.

This incredible project is housed in a small, unassuming building in the corner of a church parking lot. When I walk in for the project, there is a row of clipboards and one has my name and the date for the delivery. On a nearby shelf, another sheet displays what I’m supposed to prepare and take for the trip that day, and tells me the places we’ll be visiting.

My shelf at The Nashville Food Project

About 70-80% of the food served is hot (like the veggie lasagna mentioned above), but on the weekend shifts stick to sandwiches and fruit.  Shortly after I get there, the volunteers start to show up to prep the sandwiches for the trip, which usually involves making 60-80 turkey sandwiches. One of the volunteers, Brittany is there consistently each time I’m working, despite that fact that she was working two jobs and putting herself through school. While you can’t see all the sandwiches in this picture, the wonderful volunteers assembled 60 sandwiches for the delivery.

Tram Giroir, Brittany Orpurt, Lisa Freeman

Generally, I experience a volunteer opportunity from the perspective of the volunteer, rather than the volunteer coordinator. This project is one of the few instances where I feel like the volunteer experience is up to me – that it’s my responsibility to make sure that each volunteer feels valued and appreciated. It always makes me a little nervous because I put a lot of pressure on myself to provide a meaningful experience. It’s nerve racking because you never know who is going to show up (or if they’re going to show up), and most of the people I interact with are new to the project. When we get new volunteers, I make an effort to point the map wall (as I call it), which highlights the different areas served by the project and includes a brief description of each location.

Map wall at The Nashville Food Project headquarters

When we have it, I also like to point out all the fresh produce that’s donated (hundreds of pounds) or grown in the garden out back.

Homegrown and gleaned produce at The Nashville Food Project

Before we leave, we take a few minutes to talk about guidelines for the volunteers and what to expect from the experience. I explain that most people will be very gracious and friendly, but sometimes people are grumpy and that’s ok. I tell them that I’ve never had any trouble on one of the deliveries and that it’s likely to be a rewarding experience, but sometimes people can be unpredictable and if anyone feels uncomfortable that we’ll leave. I just want to make sure that everyone feels as prepared and comfortable as possible especially if this will be their first client-facing experience in the area of hunger and poverty.

After prepping the sandwiches and covering the basics, we grab the fruit, hardboiled eggs and any special produce and load up one of the two trucks for delivery.

Ready to roll with The Nashville Food Project truck

Once we get to the site, we’ll set up and assembly line to hand out the food, which on this run included turkey sandwiches, string cheese, apples and oranges, and hardboiled eggs.

Lisa Freeman, Adam Anghilnate, and Jessica Summers assembling a bag of food

Usually we also take bananas and those tend to be the most popular. I quickly learned that the soft foods tend to go quickly because many of the people who receive food might be missing most or all of their teeth. The first time I realized this I was shocked – not because their teeth were missing, but because it was so hard to tell! Many people alter the way they talk in an effort to hide their mouth. I’ve had entire conversations without realizing that someone was missing their teeth.

One of the many amazing things about this project is that I get the opportunity to visit the same sites each month, which gives me the opportunity to build relationships with the people we serve and to learn their stories. For example, one of our regular characters is Jack – an overweight Chihuahua who rides around contently in his owner’s wheelchair. Jack’s owner has a cowboy hat and a long beard and he seems happy to let Jack steal the show. I’ve seen them on every trip. Everyone knows him, but no one knows his real name. We all call him “Jack’s owner” and he typically peppers us with jokes on our visits.

The other incredible thing is what the experience does for the volunteers. When we leave from the church parking lot, everyone is pretty quiet, because they’re strangers to one another. So, I tend to run my mouth and ask everyone lots of questions to get them talking. On the ride home, my poor emcee skills are thankfully not needed – everyone talks about their common experience and swaps stories about the trip. The whole process is designed to build community in more ways than one.

I love this project for many reasons. I think there are two main things that really got me hooked in the first place. I love the idea that everyone is deserving of a good, nutritious meal rather than the scraps and cheapest food available. Everything that comes out of the kitchen at the Nashville Food Project is thoughtfully prepared to be good! It sends the message that we’re all equal and that everyone is worth the extra effort necessary to offer wholesome food. Second, this is a wonderful experience for volunteers because it gives you the opportunity to interact with the clients and it challenges your perception of what poverty looks like. It’s a rewarding experience for everyone involved. I wish I could duplicate this group and drop one in every city.

I could go on about this project forever. I love The Nashville Food Project. But instead, I’ll leave you with my favorite parting words from the Director of the Project, Tallu Quinn:

“The daily story of the meals we serve reminds us of what we can do with that excess, of how we can reconfigure our lives with imagination so that we might be more concerned with others around us having enough than with making sure we ourselves have plenty”

The Nashville Food Project Approach

How to Help

Volunteer! There are daytime, weeknight, and weekend volunteer opportunities with this amazing project. You can cook, garden, prep, deliver or any combination of these activities. For more information about volunteering, check the Hands on Nashville calendar or contact The Nashville Food Project’s volunteer coordinator Nathan Dryden at nathan@thenashvillefoodproject.org.

Donate! Every little bit helps and they can stretch your dollar a long way!

If you’re thinking about volunteering with this organization or in general, but aren’t quite ready to jump in, email me at sarah.petschonek@gmail.com. Thinking about helping is the first step!


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