Eight years ago, when I stepped through the back door of the Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program on Tenney Way in Brunswick for my first shift in the soup kitchen, I hardly imagined what a few hours of chopping and roasting and stirring on Monday mornings would come to mean to me.

If I was stunned by the sheer amount of food — boxes upon boxes of peppers, potatoes, greens, apples, and bread piled high — I was even more taken by the number of volunteers – 500 in 2021 – who washed carrots, chopped onions, picked up donations, sorted produce, organized the pantry and washed pots. They were former or current accountants, waitresses, bankers, business owners, farmers, housekeepers, librarians, teachers, students, nurses. Yes, the scale was sobering and spoke of need, but it also spoke of spirit. More than a few had been volunteering so long they remember the early days of the soup kitchen in a church basement. Some favored a shoulder or leaned against a stool to relieve a bad knee, but they chopped and stirred and sorted nevertheless.

I also hadn’t expected such camaraderie as we made salads and roasted chicken and checked the potatoes for doneness. And I had my share of personal surprises. While we served meals, I could hear the same din of conversation and clattering silverware from the dining room, with its tables for eight and bright interior, that I remembered from the restaurants I’d worked in during my 20s and 30s. Back then, I thought of large-scale cooking as something to leave behind once I finally made a life as a writer.

But it turns out, that old experience was lying in wait to help me. Come March of 2020, when volunteers over 70 had to stay home due to Covid restrictions, I had no choice but to become a head chef. Three of us in masks tried to keep our distance from each other as we made meatloaf and baked chicken and used what had once been the dining room to pack lunches to go. It felt as lean and strange as the times themselves. As we handed Italian beef or frittatas to folks who came to the door, I clung to the dream of the dining room returning on the other end of things.

But the other end of things rarely goes as I imagine. Although we are no longer required to distance ourselves or wear masks, and there are five or six of us working on Monday mornings, we still pack meals to go. I’ve come to appreciate that this way of delivering food is more flexible than a sit-down meal. Folks stop by quickly on a break from work or pick up food up for a neighbor. For dinner that night. Volunteers deliver meals to people who have a hard time getting out. While I miss the sound of conversations, I sometimes imagine the more than 150 servings of chili and cornbread we’d prepared being eaten all over town.

I used to wonder whether or not I’d stick with volunteering if I didn’t enjoy it so much, as if the enjoyment somehow mitigated its meaning. But I’ve come to realize thinking like that is useless, even silly, especially since I’ve long stopped seeing my Monday morning routine as volunteering. It’s just something I do in life; with people I enjoy — friends. And when my knees finally go bad, or the responsibilities of being chef become too much, I know I can always lean against a stool and chop carrots. I’d hardly be the first, and I’d hardly be alone.

Giving Voice is a weekly collaboration among four local non-profit service agencies to share information and stories about their work in the community. 

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