Food can bring us together, teach us about different cultures and break down barriers while building relationships. All of these things are true in the Sharing With Appalachian People (SWAP) home repair program in Kentucky and West Virginia.
SWAP encourages homeowners to contribute what they can to the program. While many can’t pay for the necessary home repair materials, they can often provide a snack or meal for volunteers.
“Many of our homeowners are elderly and widowed and enjoy having the opportunity to cook for others,” explains Stephanie Broersma, SWAP location coordinator in Harlan, Kentucky. “For the homeowner, this promotes dignity and ownership in the project. And for the volunteer, this encourages humility and the ability to receive from others who they may see as ‘less blessed.’”
MCC photo/Daniel Martin
These offerings may range from cold drinks to sandwiches to full homecooked meals. “We recognize that in some cases, a meal or cooler of water or soda may be the only thing a homeowner can offer,” said Peg Martin, location coordinator in Kimball, West Virginia. “There is dignity in being able to be a giver and not only a receiver.”
More important than the food itself or perhaps even the work on the homes are the conversations that come from these connections. “Taking a break for snacks or meals with the homeowner is an excellent opportunity to have conversations and build relationships and is as important as using a hammer,” said Martin.
She remembers fondly the evening when Kimball homeowners Carol and Stanley “Pops” Isabelle hosted volunteer groups from the University of Notre Dame and Goshen College as a way of thanking SWAP for significant repairs to their home.
“Pops held court with the grill, and Carol, a former school cook, prepared a variety of dishes,” recounts Martin. “We ate outside in the dead-end street-turned-patio, chatting with family members and other neighbors invited by Carol, making friends and warming ourselves by an open fire.”
MCC photo/Peg Martin
Experiencing Appalachian culture through food
For volunteers after a hard day of physical labor at various job sites, coming back to the SWAP lodging house and sharing a home-cooked dinner is a welcome break. Sitting around the dining tables, conversations and reflections are shared over plates of food.
SWAP staff ensure that volunteers get to enjoy some of the traditional Appalachian foods like soup beans and cornbread, chicken ‘n dumplings, biscuits and gravy, fried ‘taters and greens, banana pudding and peach or blackberry cobbler. In West Virginia, a special treat are pepperoni rolls like the ones miners would historically take into the mines for lunch.
MCC photo/Peg Martin
Homeowners also share Appalachian recipes for preserving food which have been incorporated into the SWAP menu such as chow-chow, a pickled relish made from cabbage, green and red tomatoes, bell peppers and onions.
Both SWAP locations also cultivate garden plots to supplement the food for volunteer groups and staff. “Growing your own food is important to us for several reason,” says Broersma. “The quality and taste is far superior to what you can buy in the grocery stores. We know exactly how our food was produced and what was used for pest and weed control and fertilizer, and it saves money on our personal and SWAP grocery bills.”
MCC photo/Pete Broersma
Broersma, along with her husband Pete (co-location coordinator) and three of their children, grow a wide variety of vegetables and herbs in their gardens along with caring for 12 laying hens and a rooster. In addition to providing food for their family, SWAP volunteers and neighbors, they also participate in the Harlan County Farmers Market on Saturday, both as vendors and customers, as a way to connect with community members.
MCC photo/Stephanie Broersma
Martin, with her husband Lee (co-location coordinator), also grow vegetables in their garden plot for fresh use and preserving for the future. With limited options for local produce, gardening is a way to offer quality produce to volunteers while working within the SWAP food budget.
“Planning a garden allowed me to observe one of my favorite seasonal rituals – starting garden plants from seed in early spring and tending them until harvest,” said Martin.
Some homeowners also share the bounty from their own gardens. Tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, corn and cabbage become delicious meals for volunteers and are frozen or canned for future use.
MCC photo/Stephanie Broersma
Other community connections
SWAP connects with Christ’s Hands, a food pantry and soup kitchen in Harlan. SWAP staff and volunteers help with food preparation and distribution, and Christ’s Hands shares excess food with SWAP that they are unable to use.
SWAP staff in Kimball also participate in a local food pantry operated by the Northfork United Methodist Church in collaboration with Houston United Methodist Church. Staff assist with loading and transportation of food, along with local distribution.
Both food pantries have received canned meat from MCC which have been distributed to local residents, particularly during the pandemic.
MCC photo/Nadine Zook Miller