In the aisles of a nearby supermarket chain store, I once met a man who remarked, “Too bad you gotta eat.”
It wasn’t entirely a joke.
Unless someone else is doing the cooking, getting yourself fed every day— even for the ablest hunter-gatherer— is no easy task. There is a lot to it: First, you have to buy the food and bring it home; then you have to wash it, cut it up, and cook it; then you have to eat it; and after that, you have to clean the dishes.
Once everything is finished, you start the process all over again – if you can afford it.
We are what we eat, and what we don’t eat. Too many of us, hampered by habit or by circumstance, don’t eat well. Now, when our resources are being stretched to the limit, we need to find new ways to make the most of every precious morsel.
There is a place in Dorchester where that is being done seven days a week. The Daily Table is a not-for-profit retail store that offers food at a price designed to fit within every budget. It carries produce, bread, dairy, and grocery items; it also has a kitchen that produces soups, sandwiches, smoothies, and a selection of “grab-n-go,” ready-to-eat meals. The menu is informed by guidelines set by nutrition experts, which makes it easy for customers to make great food choices.
The Daily Table has set up shop on the edge of a food desert, where neighborhoods are clustered outside the proximity of the mainline retail food supply chain. It is located where Park Street rises to meet Washington Street two blocks north of the Dorchester Municipal Court. Most employees live within a 1.5 mile radius of the store. Together they serve about 400 customers a day. A second store in Dudley Square is scheduled to open next spring and the kitchen will be going 24 hours a day.
Fortunately, there is a lot of food activism in Dorchester. Over time, Bill Walczak at the Codman Square Health Center and others have stepped in to fill the breach, including a number of farmers markets and community gardens and community based initiatives like the Dorchester Community Food Co-op, the Urban Farming Institute, ReVision Farm in Mattapan, the Food Project at Dudley Street, Mattapan Food and Fitness, and the Sustainability Guild in Four Corners.
As neighbors, these people are concerned about the effects of poor nutrition in our community. As business people, they are charting a path that is different than the one multi-national food companies are following. They are pioneers in locally based food production who are helping to change the way that we expect food should be packaged and sold. They are trying to make their efforts more sustainable, and are leading us to better ways to relate to food.
Says Doug Rauch, the founder of Daily Table: “The answer to hunger is not a full stomach but a healthy meal.” Hunger is not a shortage of calories. Most of the 42 million food-insecure people in the US have plenty of calories (cheap), but not much nutrition (expensive). The question, he says, is: “How to get nutrients to people at prices that compete with less-nutritious food?” The answer became the Daily Table’s mission: Make it just as delicious and deliver it at or below price.
The managers of Daily Table have good contacts with more than 50 first-rate food suppliers. Discounts and donations are the keys, but someone has to track them down. Dedicated salespeople work the market to make the deals; all this behind-the-scenes activity is called “food rescue.” It’s not about expired food; it’s about too much food - the leftovers. What we are going to do with them?
There is no standard routine to which Daily Table must conform. In back, the chef devises the day’s recipes based on the available ingredients, while the manager directs new product that arrives by the minute, making split-second decisions as to where the food should go. They have to know what to do, because the food is alive.
Out front, a considerable portion of the shelf space was forfeited to cut a window into the wall separating the kitchen from the store. You can see the people preparing your food, and it looks like they are enjoying themselves, or at least are happy in their work. Everyone there, from the executive chef who runs the kitchen to the custodian who keeps the floors clean, knows that he or she is contributing something valuable to the community. I believe that this makes the food taste better.
I joined my friend Debbie at the Daily Table for shopping. I usually do some modest foraging, but Debbie makes the trip a conquest. When I stopped at the prepared food section, she sailed on to the produce section, scooping up great branches of ginger, handfuls of jalapeno peppers, several sleeves of garlic bulbs, and armloads of spinach “because it boils down to nothing,” she explained as she moved along. “I use a lot of these, a lot!” she said, about practically every veggie in sight.
Debbie picked up an eggplant, held it aloft, and started swooning as she talked about how she was going to cook it. Her face lit up; she was again the little girl learning how to cook from her grandfather on a wood fire back in Trinidad. She told me of the aromas that she creates, and how sometimes her front door, which is situated near Ashmont Station, receives a knock from a passerby who says, “Pardon me, you don’t know me but every night when I walk past your house on my way home from work I can smell your cooking and I must know how do you do it.”
“I just mix everything all together,” she says with a smile.
It is so simple that it’s an inspiration. Now I shop more often at The Daily Table, and since it isn’t costing the earth, I’m buying more and trying new things. You gotta eat.