By Linda Beigel
On Tuesday evenings at 5:30 p.m., Grinnell’s Davis Elementary School cafeteria is transformed. The nondescript brick building, with its tiled floors, wooden tables, and array of cartoon posters, suddenly becomes a meeting place for young and old, students and professors, families, married couples and retirees—in short, it becomes a place where community is being built from the ground up, and it’s all thanks to Community Meal.
Founded 11 years ago by Susan Sanning, Community Service Coordinator, and Deanna Shorb, Dean of Religious Life, Community Meal is a weekly event in which students and other community members come together to prepare and serve a meal, which is free and open to the public.
The Social Justice Action Group (SJAG) organizes Community Meal, but each week a different organization volunteers to host it. In the past, guest organizations have included community churches, several of the College’s athletic teams, and even the SEPCs of some academic departments. Meals vary from week to week at the discretion of the guest organization, but in general the meal is balanced and healthy.
“We try to have kind of a script of meat protein, vegetarian option, vegetable, dessert [and] drinks,” said Community Meal Interim Coordinator Adelle Yin ’13.
Although the event’s primary function is to assist low-income members of the community who may be struggling to put food on the table, Community Meal draws a diverse mix of Grinnell residents as well.
“It removes any stigma that there might be of needing food and not necessarily being able to get it for yourself. You never know who’s here because they need the food, and who’s here just because they want company,” said Amber Whisenhunt ’14.
Whisenhunt first heard about Community Meal from her sister, who is a Grinnell alumna.
“She just had so many cool stories about it, and about all the community members that she met, that it just sounded like something that I would really like to do,” Whisenhunt said.
Many Community Meal regulars are residents of the Mayflower retirement community, who enjoy the opportunity to socialize with new people, and many student volunteers who share the same attitude.
“[My favorite part is] being able to have dinner with tables of people that I don’t know, being comfortable just going and saying ‘Hey, can I sit with you?’” Yin said.
Community Meal is a great way to pop the Grinnell bubble and enjoy a home-cooked meal at the same time.
“Last year, I didn’t feel like I was connecting with a large part of the Grinnell community. This year I really wanted to connect, not just with the school, but with the community,” said SJAG member Erica Kwiatkowski ’15.
Students and student groups interested in volunteering are strongly encouraged to email [sjag].
“For students who get involved, I think it’s a really low-commitment, low-stress way to contribute to our community and people you wouldn’t ordinarily meet, and connect with the town,” said Rachel Kirk ’14, a Community Meal veteran.
SJAG also accepts donations from those who wish to help offset Community Meal’s operating costs.