Palm Sunday, 2019, Centre Congregational Church, Brattleboro.

This is my short speech to the congregation as a Loaves and Fishes volunteer.

Good morning, and thank you. My name is Vincent Panella, and I’m a retired teacher and a writer. I’ve been living in Vermont since 1976. I volunteer at Loaves and Fishes for the Friday meal – as you know we also serve a meal on Tuesdays.

So, if I were to tell you what it’s like to work there, I’d like to characterize it in a few words – so let’s say, satisfying, inspiring, and tiring. Satisfying because I’m lucky enough to be able to give up one day a week to a good cause. Inspiring because this is a tangible way of adding some good to a world lacking in compassion. Tiring because one never stops moving until the last fork is put away.

Growing up in an Italian family in which food was a part of physical and mental sustenance, it was natural when I looked around for a place to volunteer that I would gravitate to the kitchen.

So with all that said, let me try to describe my day on a job from eight in the morning to one or one-thirty in the afternoon, a job in which it’s impossible for me to describe every thing I do – but I will try.

When I arrive at the kitchen at eight or so, Ruth and Phil and John and Josie are already cooking the soup and meat courses and preparing desserts and planning for the day’s meal and for next Tuesday‘s meal as well. I have evolved into the salad bar and prep man. The first thing to do after talking with Ruth and the others about what to prepare, is to check the walk-in cooler and whatever food has been donated from the supermarkets and local businesses like Amy’s and the coop. We also set up a coffee bar for early arrivals, which are usually people who just like to hang out or come in from the cold, but who also help with whatever jobs they’re willing to do or offer to do.

Then we decide how to use what we have. Much of my work  is chopping and peeling. I may cut potatoes for boiling or cauliflower for roasting. I often prepare a mix of vegetables – tomato, zucchini, onion, peppers. By then other volunteers show up to help with my job, or to set the tables, or to put food away for next time. We also prepare meals for the four daycare groups in the church, and organize shopping bags full of food for families in need. Simultaneous with my cutting and chopping and carrying we help set up a share table with snacks and prepackaged food from local sources.

We set up the salad bar with a bowl of fresh greens and smaller bowls of grated carrots, diced peppers, diced onions, olives, cucumbers, whatever is available for toppings. We make do – if we have avocados we make guacamole. If we suddenly have cabbage, we make coleslaw, or chop the cabbage for a hot dish. With enough fresh basil we make pesto for freezing or for a pasta dish.    

In other words we make something with whatever we have with an emphasis on freshness and quality and with mutually made decisions. There’s a spirit of cooperation in the face of the pressure to get everything done in time.

The actual meal begins at eleven-thirty, but by ten-thirty we hope to have soup and salads ready for early arrivals. At eleven-thirty someone rings a bell – a Loaves and Fishes tradition –  and after a prayer the menu is announced and we serve the meal. People are already lined up and waiting, usually thirty or more at first, and then a steady flow for an hour. These are mostly homeless and working poor, those for whom a meal and food to go are so important to their lives. Many ask for takeout meals for one or more. Everyone appreciates the food we provide and nothing is refused.

The meal is truly a community event. It’s not hard to see how people enjoy sitting and eating with each other. At the same time others less sociable may come in by themselves and eat alone or grab one more takeout meals and leave. This is no problem.         

At twelve thirty, when we begin to close down, the real work begins – cleanup and food management, the washing of dishes and the scrubbing of the pots and pans in which the food is cooked. We decide what to save and what to throw away because it won’t last until next Tuesday. Meanwhile others are sweeping and mopping and putting dishes and pots and silverware away, managing the recycling, counting the servings and the take away meals.

As I mentioned, the work is satisfying on more than one level, one is to serve the public, the other is to work with people like myself, mostly retired, people who work with a sense of humor and a sense of purpose. We are comfortable with each other. There’s an atmosphere of humor and seriousness. We chat while we work, of family, the weather, even politics with a light touch. All of us understand without saying that what we’re doing is important and that we’re doing some good in a world that has much to be desired.

Finally let me close with a plea for volunteers. We always need volunteers, especially in the summer when the kitchen is hot and some of our full timers take a vacation or work elsewhere. So those of you who want to contribute, you don’t need to know how to cook, all you need is a willingness to help. If you don’t want to use a knife, we will find something for you to do commensurate with your skills and desires – believe me, there’s always something to do. You can just put in a few hours. You don’t even need to stay until the last fork is put away.

Thank you for listening.