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Food and Familiarity Downtown

November 27th, 2009 by dk

When did feeding people become a social service? FOOD for Lane County’s downtown restaurant does more than feed people, but put aside the condiments of kindness and consideration for a moment. When did food become optional for some of our own?

Henry David Thoreau lumped together food, clothing, and shelter as a single, primary human need: warmth. He wrote before psychology and sociology had been invented, and before this nation could offer its citizens much beyond the basics.

Now we have and know a lot more, but we’ve misplaced and forgotten plenty too. People need food and clothing and shelter. Without warmth, the body shuts down. After that, no further services are required, social or otherwise.

The Thomas Egan Warming Centers will open as soon as the weather dips a few ticks below freezing, because the warmth provided by a doorway or a tarp or a dog is sometimes not sufficient. The Warming Centers draw their name from somebody who knows, or he would know, except he didn’t survive. Thomas Egan died last December. On a sidewalk. Cold kills.

Shelter, clothing, food. Non-negotiable human needs.

The most vulnerable among us need many other things too. Anger management classes, mediation services, parenting tips, drug counseling, gambling addiction hotlines, immigration assistance. All good things, and good investments for society when they are inserted strategically to avert later (and more costly) failures. An ounce of prevention and all that.

But we hurt the cause of human dignity when a primary human need gets lumped together with these other social services.

FOOD for Lane County collects food from restaurants, grocers, gardens, and other donors. Their mission is to get that food into the hands of hungry people. They’re good at it. The Dining Room provides a restaurant meal to anyone who is homeless or hungry four nights a week.

But The Dining Room does more than feed people. They provide the full restaurant experience, powered by a small army of volunteers. Family Dinner Program Manager Josie McCarthy sees food as a gateway service. Restoring dignity is the ultimate goal. She devised a formula that blends the two together. “Come for the hunger; stay for the hospitality.”

The volunteers at The Dining Room wear aprons emblazoned with a steaming coffee mug and the effort’s slogan: “Brewing human dignity.”

That extra measure comes from the volunteers. They get to know their customers, anticipate their choices, remind them that they are known. Being known is an important second step. Being seen is first.

Many who have been homeless describe the experience as being invisible, first and foremost. They live in the shadows, under the bridges, out of sight, unseen.

Do you avert your eyes because you don’t want them to feel embarrassed? Or because you’re unsure what you’ll say if they ask you a question? Or because you’ve imagined yourself close to where they are? Fear of becoming homeless is one of the top three fears of the average middle-aged American woman.

Invisibility can develop into a weird sort of empowerment. If people can’t see you, rules don’t apply. If nobody’s watching, it doesn’t matter what you do.

The Dining Room has rules. Customers who don’t follow them are escorted out. No cussing in the restaurant. No special orders. No seconds. The rules apply to everyone. Common courtesy is expected. Dignity is brewed on the premises.

Volunteers and staff at The Dining Room insist that every person deserves respect and retains the capacity to show it and earn it. By stoking the embers of basic decency that glow in every human heart, the restaurant creates a warmth that goes deeper than the food.

If you add dignity to the Thoreau’s warmth list, food and dignity go together. Shelter and clothing keep humans warm by covering them from the outside. But food isn’t warmth until the body processes it. Likewise, respect is a fuel that can be converted into dignity — another warmth.

There’s effort involved, for the giver and the receiver. Volunteers at The Dining Room often work up a sweat. Sweat has a sweetness to it. The effort itself produces warmth.

Thoreau also wrote, “He who cuts his own wood is warmed twice.” A community feeding its hungry is both filled and fulfilled.


Don Kahle ( volunteers at The Dining Room most Wednesdays. He writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs right here.

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