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No Ordinary Watermelon

“This guy is just really passionate about melons,” one of the lunch guests told me. “It’s all he talks about. And you think, how can you care so much about melons? But he just has this thing about bringing so much joy to others – through melon – and when you hear him talk about it, you can’t help but get excited about melons yourself. And you’re like, “Yeah, I want some of that melon!” Which, indeed, I did.

I was at the 12 Baskets Cafe, a program of the Asheville Poverty Initiative, which serves food “rescued” from area restaurants and food services at a lunch every weekday in West Asheville, NC. Rev. Shannon Spencer, the head of API, speaks passionately about the café, taking one notes, no credit for herself. Unmistakable in 12 Baskets ministry is the fact that its mission addresses multiple societal problems at once. In helping to feed the hungry, it addresses concerns about food distribution and waste. In offering local food establishments a way to dispose of uneaten food, it also creates community, at a time in which many are feeling isolated, polarized, or disconnected.

The name “12 Baskets” is a reference to the “Loaves & Fishes” miracle described in the New Testament, during which, after Jesus spoke to the crowd, enough food materialized to feed everyone there, with twelve baskets leftover. Rev. Spencer shares that, while some traditions interpret the miracle as one between God and Jesus, where Jesus acted to multiple the food, other traditions suggest that the audience was so moved by Jesus’s message that everyone took out what they had and contributed. As in the children’s story, Stone Soup, every individual sharing what they could created an abundance for all. I had read this explanation of Spencer’s before visiting 12 Baskets, and she repeated it during the orientation I attended. Nevertheless, I was unprepared for the power of watching that same miracle unfold during my visit.

One man brought a watermelon to lunch. This was no ordinary melon, but a particularly sweet heirloom variety that had fallen out of cultivation for most of the 20thcentury because its thin skin made it unfavorable for transport. A friend of his had found some discarded seeds, resurrected the watermelon, and brought one to Asheville. This man wanted that the watermelon would be shared among those lunching at 12 Baskets that day. Any who wished could also take some seeds – rare, now, in our seedless watermelon world. Sure enough, volunteers cut up the watermelon and shared it among all those gathered. There was plenty to go around.

I have my own relational history with watermelon. I always liked it fine, but it hovered in the neutral zone of fruits, somewhere around the apple and the purple grape – I wouldn’t turn my nose up at one, and I’d likely enjoy it, but I wouldn’t seek one out. It certainly didn’t rise to the sublimity of the raspberry or the mango, to my mind. But, one spring, I was traveling with my family. We were in a foreign place; we didn’t speak the language, and all four of us had been cycling through upset stomachs for a week. I was just beginning to come out of this “travel stomach” when we visited a home where someone served watermelon, and it’s slightly sweet hydration was like manna from the gods. I’ve never been so grateful for a piece of fruit, so satisfied by the way it delivered exactly what I needed in that moment. I don’t know if I like watermelon more now than it ever did, but I respect it tremendously.

Many of the stories I hear from people at 12 Baskets put me in mind of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed. In this book, Ehrenreich’s creation of a life as a low-income person works to reveal the irony of how expensive it is to be poor. As a friend of mine once observed, “If I have to take my laundry to the laundromat and pay per load, it’s very costly. But I own my own washer and dryer it costs next to nothing.” This sentiment runs as a thread through Ehrenreich’s experience as she seeks out pay-by-the-week motel rooms, attempts to locate the funds to pay for a drug test required for employment, and buys marked-up food at convenience stores because a carless trip to the supermarket is too onerous. “The system” isn’t set up to push people on the edge away from it; rather, it pulls them down. A single mistake, a single miscalculation, a single unexpected expense can take a person who has started to gain some stability and shove them back – often to a place from which that chance of making it is lost.

At 12 Baskets, I find myself called upon to account for my affluent lifestyle. One of my long-time favorite restaurants is across the street from 12 Baskets, yet I find it difficult to bring myself to eat there, to spend $20 a plate, when I know that 1) so many people on the next corner don’t know when their next meal will be, who come in at lunch and eat enough to last until the next day’s lunchtime, and 2) that so much food is sitting in there, rescued and ready to be eaten. I had previously heard that in the United States 40% of our food supply goes to waste; today I learned that that tossed amount alone could feed 80% of our population. Of course, both of these facts — the fact of the needy people and the fact of the wasted food — were true before I started showing up at 12 Baskets. But the time I spend there prompts my awareness of choices which, in my life, sometimes go unexamined: things like plane tickets, birthday presents, bottles of wine. How can I justify spending extravagantly on these types of things when I talk every day with people who can’t buy a bus ticket?

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