Food Connects Us

by Heather Criss

Heather is a program administrator for the Mendocino County Advocacy and Collaboration Team and volunteers at the Free Food Ukiah sit down meals at the homeless shelter every week.

In the beginning of 2020, I don’t think anyone could have predicted the impact a pandemic would have on the world. There were changes in the way we operated in our daily life, connected to others, shopped, and related to one another. So much unknown and unfamiliar, creating divisiveness and fear. Yet, in the midst of that, there was some hope for the most vulnerable people, and here in Ukiah, my team applied for and received the Project Homekey grant, through which Live Oak Apartments, the transitional house I’m involved in, is funded.

Up until the pandemic there had been very little funding to address the homelessness epidemic and shortfall of housing in California, so we were excited about the opportunity and determined to come up with a different approach than most of the housing strategies we had previously seen in our community.

We wanted to provide the family and social connections to support those transitioning out of homelessness, and to that end designed Live Oak Apartments to have support staff on-site seven days a week, programs to support parenting, job skills, and social interactions and meetings to support sobriety. Our staff is also very focused on health, including nutrition, physical activity, and both mental and physical health care services. We are creating a community garden, walking groups, yoga classes, and most recently, started to work with Free Food Ukiah to bring healthy and delicious meals to our residents. We provide kitchenettes at the apartments, but many of our residents are still food insecure, so the meals provide a welcome stability to the population.

The meals provided by Free Food are so meaningful to our residents, many of whom have complex health issues related to diet, poverty, and homelessness. The experience of eating catered, healthy meals that are beautiful as well as delicious is monumental in educating people about healthy food that also tastes good.

Food is also an opportunity for connection with the residents, something that is also often a struggle for people who have experienced trauma. Having a thriving community is important for healing, as sharing food and talking over meals strengthens community. Free Food provides so many benefits, both tangible and intangible. Residents have expressed immense gratitude for these meals and look forward to them every week.

As a volunteer with Free Food, I also look forward to the meals every week. It’s an opportunity for me to work with the community I serve on a daily basis and serve in a different way.

I have been working with people experiencing homelessness for about five years. I have sat with them and talked about their wants, their needs, the desires they have for their futures, the struggles that they have been through, and the abuses that they have experienced. I have related to many of the stories I have heard, and but for the grace of the loving universe, I am housed, employed, and mostly have my stuff together.

Sometimes a kind word or gesture from someone means the world, to be seen and noticed makes a difference. I can feel this taking place at the meals we serve at the shelter every week, and I sense the dignity and love that the residents feel when I bring the meals to Live Oak Apartments.

In a world that is so full of blame and hardness, being a part of a group that brings softness and acceptance has been a wonderful feeling. We are all connected, and these moments of service highlight this for me.