by Addia Williams
Addia Williams is a senior at Mendocino High School. She did an internship with Unconditional Freedom. She enjoys writing, volleyball, and spending time with her friends and family.
On a warm spring evening in May, as I entered the outdoor recreational area of the Building Bridges Homeless Resource Center in Ukiah, I first noticed the elegant black tablecloths draped over basic picnic tables, complete with a vibrant bouquet of fresh flowers in the center of each. As people seeking a warm meal began to line up, they were greeted with genuine smiles and small talk from the Free Food volunteers of Unconditional Freedom. My heart warmed at the display of true kindness and community, and awe came over me as the dishes of piping hot food were unveiled for the patrons. Huge bowls of fresh salads, pans of hearty and delicious lasagna, and trays of farm-to-table desserts were served to the shelter community. Alongside the food were large canisters of sparkling water, still water, and a homemade fruit beverage, providing each guest with a choice of drink before sitting at one of the well-made tables to enjoy a restaurant-quality meal. For those needing to take their food to go, bags were beautifully inscribed with the words “You are loved.”
The organization responsible for this exchange of food, goodwill, and dignity, is known as Free Food, a program by the nonprofit, Unconditional Freedom, which provides food to marginalized populations with the goal of nourishing both their stomachs and souls. Unconditional Freedom dates back to 2002, where distributing food has always been a focus. Initial efforts involved giving out sandwiches and bags of food in the streets of the San Francisco Tenderloin. From there, the program expanded by hosting loving holiday meals during Christmas and Thanksgiving, complete with flowers and gifts for children. During these events, volunteers for Free Food could truly see the sense of dignity and feeling of being cared for emanating from the recipients of these sit-down meals. This pushed the organization to strive to do more to help the often overlooked parts of society to thrive.
Unconditional Freedom evolved, and Caryn Roth, Free Food Program Director, told the story of how, in 2019, a plethora of apple trees on a piece of land in Philo, California, enriched the nonprofit’s mission to benefit all of society by focusing on the marginalized populations through the Free Food program. According to Roth, she and a group of others were living on a piece of land in Philo, when their dozens of apple trees all began to ripen at the same time. Even after eating plenty, giving them away to neighbors, and baking numerous pies, there were still more apples than anyone knew how to deal with. Roth explains that she and the others all felt that, “If we didn’t do something, all the abundance would rot inside us.” So Free Food was officially started by preparing meals from the garden in Philo, with additional produce from local farms. Since that time, the overarching program, Unconditional Freedom, has expanded all the way to Harlem in New York City, and in addition to Free Food, now includes programs that focus on turning prisons and jails into monasteries, aiding correctional officers, and restoring land.
Unconditional Freedom’s main focus is restoring dignity and a feeling of love to populations that are too often cast out or overlooked. The nonprofit organization believes that only by loving the parts of society and ourselves that we may want to give up on, will we as a society and as individuals ever truly be whole. When marginalized groups are provided with the tools they need to flourish, everyone has the opportunity to benefit. Caryn details the positivity she has experienced through her work with Unconditional Freedom: “With each time I sit with them and eat the food I cooked, I can feel the separation dissolving more and more.” Caryn makes it clear that all programs under the umbrella of Unconditional Freedom “are as much for us as the people we serve.” With this idea in mind, volunteers for Free Food are able to connect with groups that may otherwise be foreign to them, thus enriching the sense of community from both sides.
Throughout the past few years, Free Food has partnered with more than thirty businesses and farms to provide their beautiful nourishing meals. Through these partnerships, chefs and farmers have the unique opportunity of translating the beauty of their kitchen into a shelter, where the labor of their love is used to replenish human dignity. As Caryn explains, “The act of eating a meal, a basic right, gives people dignity over what they put in their bodies. Food is our basic nature; it connects us all.”