By Marina Marmolejo
In the spring of 2018, DESK partnered with the Yale School of Public Health’s Practice-based Community Health Research Practicum. The goal was to measure DESK’s nutritional standards against both national best-practices and client-choice, i.e., what our Guests want, and then to make recommendations on how we can improve what we do. What the students learned though, extended beyond the social sciences. Read their full report here, or a two-page summary here.—ed.
As a first-year at the Yale School of Public Health, I embarked on an academic adventure with four other classmates to more deeply investigate food preferences of clients at Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen. As outsiders, we slowly grew to adore, respect, and honor both the personable clients and administration at DESK. (Shout out to Meagan, the amazing Kitchen Manager, and the down-to-earth Executive Director, Steve).
As a powerful girl-group of five, we distributed the project evenly. While some took the lead on the nutritional analysis, I was in charge of the client-based focus groups. I soon became familiar with many clients at DESK and I felt somewhat famous when I would walk through downtown and waive to the men and women I had the pleasure of interviewing the week before. As I inched my way into their community, they became a defining part of my Yale experience. The wealth and power of Yale is undeniable, and as a graduate student it’s easy to gravitate towards all things Yale. There’s a clear yet tacit divide between the Yale and New Haven communities, but working with DESK gave me the tangible experience to break down personal borders and befriend the eclectic bunch that gathers at DESK.
By the end of the semester, we developed a list of recommendations to improve the dietary profile of DESK’s meals, along with suggestions to increase engagement. Throughout the focus groups, members discussed a high satisfaction with the meals, with an overwhelming appreciation to a higher power. Most were conscious of their health restrictions, such as diabetes and hypertension, but wouldn’t want to try new healthy foods if they couldn’t recognize or pronounce them. Several of those we interviewed relayed a discouraging sentiment: a lack of personal agency and self-worth, as summarized in the following quotes.
“Well, being that this is given to us, without it coming out of our pocket, anything is acceptable. You know what I mean? It’s not coming out of our pockets, so what do we really have to say? What opinion do you really have?”
“I’ve heard people comment on [the food], but it’s free. You’re homeless. You don’t have options to do something. Just accept it the way that it is.”
Sadly, these types of comments filled each of the five focus groups. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs suggests that we require basic resources such as food, shelter, and security to eventually reach a state of self-actualization. DESK is uniquely positioned to not only meet those basic needs, but also provide a psychological support system to empower and spark confidence with their members. It starts with food choice, which is what our project goal aimed to understand, but it ends with eradicating systemic injustices that disproportionately affect communities of low socioeconomic opportunity. By conducting the focus groups, I am more cognizant that as a public health practitioner I must juggle many layers of responsibility to advocate for not only the basic needs of marginalized populations, but also the psychological support systems required to mitigate these feelings of low self-esteem and lack of agency.
The sensation of extreme hunger can manifest into a plethora of emotions: anger, frustration, and hopelessness, to name a few. I have a great deal of respect for not only the individuals I interviewed, but all Guests at DESK. It takes an immense amount of strength to persevere through food insecurity and I honor all the members for their life-giving attitudes and positivity. I am very humbled to have been part of the fight to end food inequality in New Haven and will continue to be an advocate for these injustices in the future.