Health, Community, & Equity: Finding Meaning in Food

DESK Leadership, Views, Volunteers

The following is adapted from the Annual Address of DESK’s Executive Director, Steve Werlin, delivered at the Breaking Bread Inaugural Dinner on March 24, 2017.

Accepting the Executive Director position at DESK has been a bit of a homecoming for me, and a step toward fulfilling a larger dream. When I moved to New Haven in 2011, DESK was my first volunteer experience. I spent the better part of a year coming here on Wednesday afternoons to set up the weekly pantry, jotting down names of clients in the log, telling them how they might cook collard greens, and getting to know the other volunteers, staff, and of course the clients. I even had the opportunity to dust off that high school Spanish that I’m embarrassed to admit I had barely used outside the classroom.

Being a volunteer at DESK doesn’t just fill you with that sense of do-gooder pride or self-satisfaction you get when you help those in need; it makes you feel like you’re needed, and that you’re part of something larger and more important than the ego. It makes you feel alive.

And I think this is something many of us who have volunteered with DESK can relate to.

Our volunteers are all around us. They are in every corner of the city; they come from every neighborhood. DESK’s corps of over 1,000 volunteers each year are the people that make this place function, day after day—the lifeblood, without whom our doors do not stay open. Thirty years ago, we were founded as a volunteer-driven organization, and we remain true to that value today.
Thank you, to each and every volunteer for your tireless efforts to do whatever it takes to ensure that DESK fulfills is mission.

While some volunteers are visible on the frontlines more regularly, others play a role behind-the-scenes. Our Board Members are the dedicated individuals who meet each month to provide the leadership, governance, and strategic direction of DESK—although some of them can also be found serving meals and sweeping floors. Thank you, to our Board for providing the oversight, vision, and leadership needed to move DESK forward.

And last, but not least, is our staff. There’s only three of us: Meagan, Henry, and myself. We’re the ones who are always around but try to stay out of the way of the volunteers. We’re in the stock room making sure everything is organized, in the kitchen preparing menus and simmering our in-house hot sauce, or up in the office, doing … whatever it is I do up there. And again, it’s just the three of us, overseeing services to nearly 2,000 individuals each year, and so without your support, we cannot get food to those in need.

But providing food to our guests is just part of what we do here. Food is of course a basic need and basic human right. But it’s also a proxy or a stand in. For us at DESK, food is a symbol of three important values:

The first is health. Those who have served dinner here may already be aware that the Yale School of Nursing visits most nights to conduct health screenings, but the food itself is also part of our overall goal to promote healthy living. With each meal, we don’t just provide calories; we provide nutrition. We aim to ensure that the food we’re putting in front of our guests each night is no less nutritious than the food we would serve to our own family members. We strive to balance delicious and sometimes new foods with culturally-sensitive menus. And in the coming months we plant to partner with sister-organizations to explore new ways of fostering our clients’ health through education, exposure, and empowerment.

The second value that food stands for here at DESK is community. When our volunteers look around the dining room at each other, they see the faces of people who keep coming back here each night, each week, each month, each holiday. Our volunteers are not only drawn by the call of service to the community, but by a desire to be part of that community. And it’s not just camaraderie of serving meals together; it is a community that includes both volunteers and guests alike.

And that brings me to the third value that food represents within these walls, possibly the most difficult to live up to—and that’s equality. Education has been called the great equalizer, but around here, it’s food. When people sit down at the same table together, when they eat together, when they break bread together, there is no hierarchy. They are doing so as part of the same community and as equals.

And that is our goal here. My favorite part of this job is not going out and speaking with community groups to muster support (though I do enjoy that); it’s not working with Board members to develop our strategic vision (though I enjoy that, too); and it’s not even composing beautiful Excel spreadsheets to track our service numbers, volunteer activities, and performance efficiency (though yes, I admit I really like that, as well). My favorite part of this job is when I get to sit down and talk with our guests—hear their stories and views, share my stories and views, and in that moment build a sense of understanding and strengthen a bond between what might otherwise be disparate lives. And indeed, I encourage each of you, when you come here to serve a meal, to find a few minutes to do the same and learn a little something about another soul in your community.

In this way, it is my hope that we can move toward a more equitable, just, and healthy community here in New Haven.

To learn more about how you can get involved, visit our Volunteer page or make a contribution to support our work.