“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 free, cafe-style lunch every weekday in West Asheville, NC. Rev. Shannon Spencer, the head of API, speaks passionately about the café, and its mission that addresses multiple societal problems at once. She takes, one notes, no credit for herself. In helping to feed the hungry, 12 Baskets 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. “We live in abundance, y’all!” she cheers, Southern-style. “We’re living in an unjust system.”
“12 Baskets” refers to the New Testament miracle of the Loaves & Fishes, during which, after Jesus spoke to the crowd, enough food materialized to feed everyone there, with twelve baskets leftover. Some traditions interpret the miracle as one between God and Jesus, where Jesus multiplied the food to feed the people. But, Rev. Spencer shares, others suggest that the audience was so moved by Jesus’s message that everyone took out what they had and contributed to the meal. As in the children’s story, Stone Soup, every individual’s sharing a little created 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 person 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, to share 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.
Every weekday starting at 11, diners order from the chalked menu at the front of the room. They eat fresh, healthy food off of ceramic plates made by area artists; they drink free-flowing, locally roasted coffee from handmade ceramic mugs; and they visit with each other. The servers and dishwashers are all volunteers, but if those who finish a shift without sitting down to share a meal with others haven’t done the most important part of the job. “Someone would have paid $15 for this plate of food yesterday!” we often enthuse to each other. Throughout a shift, new donations arrive. The fridges and freezers are at capacity; there aren’t enough people to eat all the food our city wants to throw away.
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 because 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 required drug test, 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; recently 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. And on the flip side, because I do have the means, I want to support the restaurants that donate to 12 Baskets, to keep the abundance coming. 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?