Bridging Connections through Food, Programming
An Introduction to Denny Tower Meals
The anxiety and excitement was building for the night—the night of the infamous Denney Tower dinner. This was my first Denny meal of many, as the coordinator of these events for the semester. For a quick synopsis, the Denney Tower dinner is a meal served to the residents of a senior living community of the Athens Housing Authority called Denney Tower. This occurs about once a month on a given Sunday evening. With donated food from various local grocery stores, farmers markets, and UGArden, this meal is made possible. With Campus Kitchen’s intent to eliminate food waste, hunger, and senior isolation, this dinner functions to be a small but effective event.
The night was as planned:
3:00 p.m. pick up equipment for dinner
4:00 p.m. begin cooking
5:30 p.m. get the meal ready to serve
6:00 p.m. introductions and begin serving
7:30 p.m. cleanup
This well-oiled machine looks like it purrs along by itself, but much goes into the preparation. Being as I’m a rookie to the process, I hung on tight as I raced along learning the ropes and kicking it into high gear. Beginning with the equipment pickup, I made several determined trips back and forth, to and from my car, loading up various equipment necessities (pans, chafers, warming and cooling bags, serving platters, etc.) required to cook and serve the dinner.
Lessons in Meal Planning and Food Waste
Next, I was off with expedience to meet the coordinator of Campus Kitchen, Brad Turner, to whip up a delicious meal for the Denney Tower residents. Happy surprise—I was welcomed by eleven other volunteers who cheerfully volunteered for Sunday Cooking at Talmage Terrace, a senior living community who allows us to utilize their kitchen space and extra walk-in cooler/freezer where we’re able to keep our donated food. Cooking in the kitchen with so many people made things a bit more chaotic and boisterous, but it was exciting! There were so many people in one concentrated space, motivated and passionate about utilizing good food that might have once been thrown out simply due to confusion on sell-by dates or surplus, and transforming it into nutritious, filling meals for families in our community.
Cooking the Denney Tower dinner was slated to take about an hour. The menu for the dinner consisted of salad, pasta, sauce, and meatballs (thanks to Trader Joe’s, Publix, and Fresh Market, our weekly food donors.) However, as so often happens to well-placed plans, time got away from us. Donated food requires a little more time and diligence to ensure it is consumer ready, hints the reasons why our cooking shift leaders are trained in the highest standard of food-safety by getting their ServSafe Food Manager’s certificate.
I discovered that the amount of time and effort put forth to ensure a good quality meal using donated food is strongly underestimated. With only fifteen minutes left to cook the meal, we found that our main entree of Lobster Ravioli had gone bad before it could be used! The panic set in! The lesson was learned was that despite the greatest effort to avoid food waste, there will always be some waste that is unavoidable. And secondly, thinking on your feet and having extra pasta on hand is always beneficial. Just in the nick of time did we pull this meal together! Without the help from the amiable and determined volunteers, the dinner might not have been finished in time.
Nourishing a Community through Food and Fellowship
Food in hand, we zoomed off to Denney Tower (of course going the speed limit but not without a sense of urgency). We arrived at Denney Tower where I was, once more, welcomed by more wonderful students who were excited and inspired to be a part of Campus Kitchen. These students, in particular, are from the College of Public Health. They will be working closely beside me throughout the semester to find ways to improve the access, health, and senior isolation in Denney Tower and in our community.
Since the spring of 2016, Campus Kitchen and Dr. Hein’s Community Health class have worked with these residents by sharing a meal and various programming from lessons on nutrition to assistance with technology. The on-going relationship with the residents allows us to build those connections and trust so that if it’s needed, the residents feel confident to set up an appointment with us to apply for S.N.A.P. benefits. For older adults, this process can feel quite cumbersome and not everyone is aware of the full scope of what’s available to them—like being able to have their unreimbursed medical expenses count towards their S.N.A.P. benefits. Despite eligibility, 3 out of 5 seniors do not participate due to a variety of barriers including mobility, technology, and stigma due to widespread myths on how the program works and who can qualify. Especially in southern states, senior hunger is growing but this demographic group is significantly less likely to participate in the program versus other groups. Our goal is not only to clear up some of the myths, but to ultimately help them get as much assistance that’s available to them so they can afford a balanced meal.
We set up the meal and were about to welcome the residents when we were given the most gracious welcome by them! Feeling so welcomed by the residents through their joyful expressions, openness, and positive comments immediately confirmed that our hard work had not been in vain. We introduced ourselves, and Mr. Richie, a resident at Denny, said the prayer as is his custom. The volunteers served the meal and had the opportunity to actually sit down with residents and chat while also enjoying the delicious dinner. Bonding with one another over a meal nourishes not only our bodies but our souls. Whatever our differences, young or old, rich or poor, weak or strong, we are one. Restoring food to restore the well-being of our neighbor, restores us all. I'm already looking forward to the next Denney Tower dinner in February and I'm excited to introduce the activity we have planned for these residents that treat us like family.