Imagine yourself at the grocery, with dinner, lunches and breakfasts to plan for the week. You push the cart along the aisles, but none of the foods you need seem to be available. Instead, there is an odd assortment you don’t quite know how to adapt to the way your family eats. You need healthy fresh ingredients…fruit, vegetables, eggs, milk…but of these there are none or few. You wish that the grocery had thought more about the way its neighbors lived before it stocked its shelves. You wish they had simply asked what you needed, instead of presuming it.
Kerry Sherrill, the social worker at Frank Porter Graham Bilingue School, and before that at Carrboro Elementary…“A great community-minded place!” she enthuses… thinks that helping to feed people ought not to be so one-sided. The needs she sees not only in the families of children at the school, but also as a long-time activist for PORCH, don’t reflect what’s on the shelves at many food pantries in our community. “If we are really going to help people in a culturally competent way,” she says frankly, “that is, a way that gives them dignity and recognizes who they really are as people, we have to understand how they live so that we can truly meet those needs. We have to ask them.”
So, it’s no surprise that Kerry believes that, of all the programs she has worked with, PORCH is the best at reaching out to their clients personally and culturally. According to Susan Romaine, Kerry has herself to thank for leading the program (and trying to convince other organizations) to recognize the ways that different communities think of nutrition. Kerry first met Susan and Debbie Horwitz, two of PORCH’s founders, while they were parents at the school. Kerry began to think about what food really meant to her clients, and when PORCH got started, helped them understand the necessity of including fresh foods. Kerry, for her part, celebrates Susan, Debbie and Christine for their enthusiasm in taking on that important task.
It all comes down to mutual understanding, they agreed. They first explored how the Karen community, refugees from Burma, lived. One of their leaders, Khukhu Juelah, invited them to tour her kitchen to talk about food; they even took pictures of their meals. When you come to know who you are feeding, it’s easier to put aside general (and often mistaken) assumptions, Kerry emphasizes. The women continued with Latino families and refugees from Syria and the Congo. The fresh food component allows families to cook in the healthy and diverse ways their cultures have taught them. While Kerry was explaining that, this writer was thinking: what if, as we filled our bags each month, we, too, could picture the kinds of families who would use those ingredients?
PORCH, Kerry says, gives both volunteers and recipients a way of coming together. “The thing I love most about volunteering at the pickup sites,” she says, smiling broadly, “is seeing those families come in, greeting and engaging us and each other in continuing conversations week by week. It’s a very social atmosphere!” Kerry laughs, “And isn’t volunteering all about the people we meet?”
She often sees the eagerness with which PORCH recipients step up to help in return. One group of parents, whose children were helped by a grant to go on a school trip, volunteered a Saturday to repaint the school buildings in cheerful colors. Another came to landscape and trim. The facelifts cheered everyone. “Children born in refugee camps grow into teenagers who, like their parents, also learn to give back,” she says. Even reluctant teens can be cajoled to help carry bags, push carts, and translate. Having a useful place in a community is essential to all of us, Kerry reminds us, and sharing food can be a vehicle to that…if we show up to the plate, too.
Rachel Victoria Mills, for PORCH