Before the summer of 2016, I didn’t care or think much about food. Of course, I had foods I liked and foods I didn’t, but food was never a big deal to me. I had no idea how much it could affect people or change lives. I had also never gardened; I was always too focused on school and track to spend my springs or summers growing food or flowers. Then, my family went to southern California over Christmas break last year, and I discovered the culture of healthy eating and the many farm-to-table restaurants. California was like a paradise, but we couldn’t move there. So instead, I decided to make my Illinois more California-ish. For the first time, I became interested in plants, fascinated by growing my own food. I wanted to become an expert in all things gardening. My mom told me about the gardens at the Good Samaritan Inn and suggested I garden there (she didn’t want me tearing up the grass in our backyard). A month later, I started talking to the Inn about volunteering in their gardens over the summer. I had volunteered at the Inn before, serving in the dining room, and my mom had worked there ever since my dad died in 2013, but I had never been in the gardens before, and I had no idea how much the experience would change me.
First, I got the whole saga of the gardens program. For years, the Good Samaritan Inn was entirely a soup kitchen. Situated in one of the most poverty-stricken areas in Decatur, Illinois, its primary purpose, like most soup kitchens, was to feed the hungry. Then, a couple years ago, the new director decided to transform the empty lot on the Inn’s property into a garden. This new garden program greatly expanded and now includes five gardens in the Good Samaritan Inn’s neighborhood, two other gardens located further away, and even a small orchard. The Inn uses the fresh produce in its daily meals, and the menu has changed drastically from dessert every day to fresh greens and fruit every day. The new garden program transformed the Inn from another place for the hungry to eat unhealthy food to a free and nutritious oasis in a food desert.
Last spring, the Good Samaritan Inn allowed me to manage the one original garden on its property. This garden, known officially as the Interpretive Garden, was full of pallets repurposed as beds. I was given free reign, told to plant as many different crops as I wanted; this garden, as the closest one to the building, was primarily used for tours and should include a sampling of all the crops that the Inn grows. As a Type A personality perfectionist, I spent the entire spring taking pictures of seed packets, comparing varieties, researching growing conditions, diagramming the various beds, and generally planning my entire summer at my garden. Then, school ended, and I started prepping the beds and planting. I learned that I did not know what I was doing in the slightest. None of my plans were on schedule. I couldn’t find half the seeds I had taken pictures of. I was inefficient and spent so much time meticulously watering and weeding the few things I had planted that it took weeks to plant anything new. So I had to stop planning, stop being so detail-oriented, and take it a day at a time. As the director of the Good Samaritan Inn, Stacey Brohard, told me many times, “Life is a marathon, not a sprint.” Gradually I managed to chill out a bit, to plant each crop, to get everything watered. I worked more and more efficiently, learning that not every weed needed to be pulled. Not everything I planted grew, but as with any project I start, I was incredibly dedicated. I volunteered extra hours; I shortened my lunch breaks to ten-minutes (some days I didn’t take a lunch break at all, but that only worked when my mom wasn’t at work), all in order to spend that little bit of extra time pulling a weed, adding some compost, or watering a dry bed. I loved my plants, and I remember how proud I was when I harvested my lettuce for the first time, when I saw the first bell peppers forming on the plants, when I got to taste the collards that I actually grew and harvested. It was an amazing feeling.
However, as much as I loved the gardening aspect of my time at the Good Samaritan Inn, I loved the people I met even more. As that one nerdy girl with few friends at school, this was my first experience with family outside of my blood relatives. I cracked jokes with Stacey, the director, and Kenny, one of the carpenters building greenhouses for the Inn. I listened to Bertha’s stories about her children and grandchildren, and I even made friends with the kitchen staff, whom I rarely saw. As much as I was trying to make a difference in people’s lives with my garden, the people at the Inn also made a huge difference in my life. They taught me more than school ever did, things like how to use a screwdriver and drive a tractor, as well as more important things like how to loosen up in front of people, how to be open and express myself, and how to be myself with no shame or insecurity. The Good Samaritan Inn gave me exactly what I had been needing; confidence and support and family. It taught me how much I was worth, and it changed my whole attitude.
I almost wonder why I was surprised that the Inn was changing me; it naturally rehabilitates people. It did so for my mom, who was struggling with the death of my dad when she was hired. It gave her a goal, and she progressed from storeroom organizer to manager of the Inn, and now to advancement coordinator. In the same way, I went from a constantly stressed-out workaholic to a much less stressed-out person with the ability to relax occasionally. I gained confidence and became more extroverted as I got more comfortable there. The Inn does the same for so many people; some of the cooks have barriers to employment, and many indoor employees started out eating in the dining room. The people I gardened with were no different. One man, who had previously been incarcerated, was the first person to teach me how to use gardening tools, and he would always tell me to go inside and take a break when it was too hot outside. One woman, who was working toward her GED, loved plants so much, she would put in extra time to help me water my peppers or lettuce on a hot day. They taught me a lot about people in general and showed me that I could never really judge anyone.
The Good Samaritan Inn manages to bring out these people’s good qualities through its two programs, Mercy Kitchens and Mercy Gardens. These programs are advertised to the Inn’s patrons, the people who eat in the dining room, and they teach the soft skills necessary for employment, including showing up to work on time, filling in a time sheet, and using proper work etiquette. As a volunteer, not all of this applied to me, but I definitely had to learn how to work with others, how to stand up for myself, and how to be responsible. The programs also teach hard skills; Mercy Kitchens teaches students how to cook and do other restaurant jobs, while Mercy Gardens teaches about gardening and most of the farm-to-table process, from weighing produce to shucking corn to rinsing tomatoes. These programs are completely free, provided the students put in extra volunteer hours. In other words, the Good Samaritan Inn uses food and food-related skills to rehabilitate people in poverty. We do not just provide the hungry with healthy meals, we teach them to grow the food, to provide for themselves, and to find employment. We provide them with the tools to eat healthy food and get themselves out of poverty. It fascinated me how food can be so much more than food, how it can be a tool used to help people.
This summer, I was an honorary member of the Mercy Gardens class. My class time was spent working in my garden, but I graduated along with the other students and received a certificate. I was by far the youngest graduate, as these programs are focused on helping adults. My goal is to change that. This summer, I will be returning to my garden, and I would like to adapt the Mercy Gardens program to target high school students in poverty-stricken areas of Decatur. I do not think we should wait until these teenagers are unemployed adults. We should be proactive, advertise to the high schools in town, give students the skills necessary to find employment after high school. I would like to offer small camps to give kids a taste of what gardening is like, to help them see whether this is a possible career path for them. It would also give them some working experience, something to put on a résumé to help them get into colleges or score better jobs. This way, we would fight the cycle of poverty before it has a chance to take hold completely of these kids. We would encourage teenagers to find jobs before they fall prey to collecting welfare over working. At the same time, we would encourage these students to eat healthy, and we would provide them with the skills to do so.
I can say from my experience in gardening that I was far more likely to eat a vegetable that I grew myself than one that I bought at the store. While I took the mandatory semester health class at my high school, the charts and diagrams never encouraged me to eat kale as much as harvesting it from my garden did. Providing the Mercy Gardens class to high school students, thereby giving them the tools to start their own gardens, would expose them to many different vegetables and show them how delicious fresh produce can be. Pairing this class with the Mercy Kitchens class would then teach these students how to prepare this produce. They would learn the whole farm-to-table process. One of the largest problems with food in poverty is the lack of cheap and healthy food available. Teaching high school students how to grow and cook their own food would discourage them from buying cheap candy or fast food and make healthy food affordable and readily available. Adding high school level Mercy Gardens and Mercy Kitchens programs would give these students both the tools to eat healthy and the skills to find employment after high school.
I recently submitted a paper very similar to this one as a scholarship application to conferences in Europe about the future of food. I did not get the scholarship, but I still believe strongly that the future of food lies in the philosophy at the Inn. The programs at the Inn could do so much good, not just in the city of Decatur, Illinois, but also in many other communities throughout the world. They could transform soup kitchens from just feeding the hungry to keeping people from becoming hungry. They could change the very culture of poverty by bringing people out of the cycle of welfare and unhealthy food before they are even trapped in it. I believe this is truly the future of food; soup kitchens doing more than just feeding the hungry and treating one aspect of the sickness of poverty, instead reducing the amount of hungry people by offering programs that use food to increase employability, thereby immunizing against poverty.
The most important lesson I took from my summer at the Good Samaritan Inn is how important food is. To start with, it’s at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; without it, people cannot progress and focus on creativity or happiness or learning. But food also changes and affects us all. Growing food gave me confidence and friendship and peace. Helping to provide it to the poor gives my mom joy and purpose. Knowing how to grow it and cook it gives the people in the Mercy Kitchens and Mercy Gardens classes self-sufficiency and employability. Food can do so much more than feed us; it can be used to change our lives.