I volunteered at WCK and found the meaning I needed

Jim Webster

THE WASHINGTON POST – If I could give you the details of the dish I’m working on, I would. I would describe what the finished dish looks like, with a poetic recitation of colour and composition of each element, including the provenance of any that was particularly impressive. I would taste it, and in a rapturous string of adjectives, tell you how incredible every bite is.

But I don’t have any of those details, because I won’t be eating this dish. I will barely catch a glimpse of a completed bowl before they all go out the door.

On this day, I’m volunteering with World Central Kitchen (WCK), and this is one of the over 3,000 cold and reheatable meals I’m helping assemble in a restaurant space at Nationals Park. From my vantage point on the terrace level just above the centre field wall, I can see that a member of the grounds crew is working on the outfield grass, keeping it in pristine condition for a baseball game that will not be played. I can see home plate.

Or I could if I wasn’t laser-focussed on ladling portions out of a bottomless vat of black-eyed peas.

There is a line of six red folding tables, each six feet long. One person and one element of the dish are assigned to each table. It’s as if folding tables have always stood ready to mark proper social distance in the event of a global pandemic, and that’s exactly what they’re doing here.

Volunteers and contract workers are reflected in the glass overlooking the stadium at World Central Kitchen’s Nationals Park operation in Washington, DC. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

I’m at the second table. For a shade over two hours, I will look to my left and see a line of takeout containers moving toward me that have been filled with a healthy scoop of edamame-and-kale-studded grains by a man named Steve. He’s pretty fast, and I have to do my best to prevent a backlog. I add a scoop of the peas, then slide the container to my right, where a woman whose name I never catch adds a scoop of tomato salad.

She is also quite fast, and I feel like I’m letting her down whenever I notice she’s waiting for me. She doesn’t seem to mind, though, because whenever there’s a lull, she dances in place to the ‘80s pop playing from a speaker connected to the phone of one of the chefs. The bowl continues down the line, with the next person adding some feta cheese and another ladling on some tzatziki dressing before the final person secures a lid on the container and it goes into a bag that goes into a box that goes out for delivery.

Across from us, another team stands as our mirror image, doing exactly the same thing. In those two-plus hours, we produce over 1,500 Mediterranean grain bowls. Earlier in the day, we made about the same number of chicken potpie bowls with potatoes and broccoli. There are other production rooms in the stadium, and all told over 10,000 meals will go out to people on the front lines of fighting the coronavirus and to those who are food insecure around the DC area.

In a time where isolation is the rule and it can be a struggle to find meaning, I found some by joining a team at a baseball park.

I am neither a front-line worker nor food insecure. I have a job that I don’t worry may dissolve in this crisis, and the worst inconvenience I’ve faced is doing that job from my comfortable home with its well-stocked pantry.

For weeks, my view was not of a pristine baseball diamond but of my cute if cranky 19-year-old cat. I distracted myself between work shifts by baking loaves of bread and dozens of bagels.

Keeping up with the news became overwhelming. It was impossible to feel any more distraught over the latest projected peak date. It was impossible to feel that the constantly updated numbers of sick and dead were anything but a hideous math problem. It was impossible to feel optimistic that there was an end in sight.

Ultimately, it became impossible to feel at all.

As a matter of self-preservation, I needed to see something good. I needed to be something good.

One day, I saw a post by a friend, Chef Matt Adler, who is in charge of World Central Kitchen’s operations at Nationals Park. I texted him to tell him I was impressed and wished I could help somehow.

He responded immediately: Come over anytime. Two days later, on a pre-scheduled day off, I was there.

It struck me as I was driving to the stadium that I didn’t even know who was benefitting from the meals. But I knew that WCK was founded by Chef José Andrés with the mission of feeding people around the world wherever disaster strikes, and now disaster is literally everywhere. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize last year for his efforts and is working with Congress to make federal disaster relief more accessible. I was confident that the meals were going where they were needed.

I also felt confident that I would get at least as much out of the day as I put in. Traditionally, the most effective release for me is cooking for friends. That wasn’t a reliable option in a quarantined world. But the idea of helping feed someone in need – and a lot of them – was a thrill.

My first day at the stadium was everything I hoped. I portioned chicken stew. I ladled beans. I garnished hundreds of salads with colourful tortilla chips. I moved hundreds of pounds of produce from a loading dock into a walk-in cooler and helped unload it.

I put stickers on boxes. It was about eight hours of nonstop action. When the shift was over at 5pm, I was exhausted, and my joints ached. And I knew I had to come back for more.

I was feeling again: Sure, physical pain from a day of manual labour, but also a sense of accomplishment, of purpose. It was an unexpected high.

By 5.15pm, I was home sitting on the couch and contemplating the day. Fifteen minutes later, I was on the phone with my boss to tell her that I wanted to do this regularly. Before I could pitch my plan, she told me she would arrange my schedule for the duration of the chaos so I could go back each week.

So every Tuesday has become a new opportunity to pack more meals than the week before – or at least do it faster. And when we were done packing, we might stay and prep packaging for the next crew. Every week we got updates on how many meals the organisation had prepared worldwide

But even if we never met any of the people benefiting from those millions of meals, I knew one person that was getting a lot out of the effort: Me.

I suddenly had an anchor to my week. In an era where days lost definition, I always knew when Tuesday was. I got to spend it working with a team of like-minded people, even if I could only identify them by face mask. I felt less stressed the rest of the week, and more focussed.

None of that was what I signed up for. But I’ll take it.

The traditional payoff for cooking for someone is the act of sharing it with them, or at least witnessing their reaction. That’s not how it works when you’re sending out thousands of meals a day, but I found a way to get a taste of it: I arranged to work at a distribution site, where the reheatable meals that I help assemble are put in the hands of the people who will eat them.

So one Tuesday, I drove to Langley Park, Md. As I pulled into the parking lot of an elementary school, the impact was apparent. The WCK truck was still setting up, and there were already two lines, each stretching about half the length of a football field, of sufficiently spaced people waiting to pick up dinners for their families.

My job was to listen for the number of meals each person was requesting, put that many in a bag, add apples, then hand the bag off. My hope had been to talk to people in line about their circumstances, which meals they liked the most, and what it means to them to not have to worry about dinner on the days that WCK comes to their neighbourhood.

My reality: I was behind before I started. Packing the bags seemed easy, but it required my complete attention to keep that long line moving. Plus, no one was there to chat. They were there to pick up dinner, get the kids home and get on with their evenings. I respected that.

I tried to look everyone in the eye when I gave them their bag. Any facial expressions were neutralised by masks, of course, but beyond the thank yous that I heard over and over, I tried to pick up on reaction from eye contact. I saw gratitude and relief. I saw concern, fear and exhaustion. Often, it was a mix of all of those things.

We handed out almost 1,500 meals in a little over an hour. I started thinking about all those ladles of black-eyed peas again. And about the 10,000 or so meals that have passed through my hands on the assembly line during my limited hours at the stadium.

And about the half-million meals that have been produced at Nationals Park since March. And that WCK has been responsible for nearly 15 million meals worldwide in that time. I tried to multiply what I had witnessed to match those numbers. The cumulative impact overwhelmed me.

After a shift one day, I walked out of the stadium toward the parking garage. Andrés was there dropping off equipment and rallying the troops. I hung back to say hi and, more importantly, to thank him for creating this huge thing that I could participate in some small way.

We spent a couple minutes catching up, and as he was about to get into his car, he stopped, turned back toward me and asked me if I was doing okay.

I told him I was. Then he asked me again. It was the same words and the same tone, but from the look in his eyes – I could see only his eyes over his stars-and-stripes bandanna – it felt like a different question. One with more gravity. So I thought about it for another minute. I could have spent the day sitting at home in front of a computer. Instead, I helped crank out thousands of meals for people who need them, and I felt good about it. I feel like I’m really doing okay. So I repeated that to him.

He made a fist and tapped his giant heart twice, then pointed to the sky.

“We’re going to get through this,” he said. “We’re going to be fine.”