On a weekly basis, members from Club Nova visit the Chapel Hill Farmers’ Market to pick up fresh, local produce donated by local farmers and shoppers at the Donation Station. One member loads it into her car, packing the boxes brimming with fresh eggs and seasonal veggies into all the available free space. She drives it a short distance to the Club Nova Clubhouse, where culinary unit leader Lauren Hart, and Club Nova members will transform the fresh produce, eggs and meat into delicious and wholesome meals twice a day for around 30 members. Over the course of the past 12 months, we have been delighted and inspired by their tales of culinary delight and transformation from community generosity.

I was recently given a tour of the clubhouse and Club Nova thrift store by one of the members who called me “the sweet potato lady”, reminiscent of the bountiful haul from the winter. Club Nova was founded in 1987 to address the needs of Orange County citizens living with mental illness in a holistic, caring environment designed to promote rehabilitation and reintegration into the community. Members and staff work side by side in various roles to operate the thrift shop and clubhouse. One such role is in the “Culinary Unit”, where members help prepare breakfast five days a week, lunch six days a week, and dinner two evenings a week. Members also assist in planning menus, procuring food, and managing the budget, providing critical life and job skills training.

Outside the kitchen door members keep a small garden, full of fresh herbs and vegetable starts donated from the market, ripe with the promise of the summer bounty to come. It wasn’t always this way though. “Our collaboration with Farmer Foodshare has helped us transition from assembling meals from frozen, mixes,  and prepared food to cooking from scratch” says Lauren Hart, Culinary Unit Leader. “We are incorporating a lot more fresh food in our daily meals. We’ve been able to blanch and freeze extra produce, which we used in the winter, or send home extra veggies - one member took home peppers and eggplant in the summer to make stir-fries for his group home. Other service providers are telling me that members shared with them that they are happy to be having healthier, tastier food.”

“We’ve had a lot of members try food they have never had before. Recently, we had sloppy joes and everyone in the kitchen kept asking, ‘Where’s the Manwich?’ ‘It would be better with Manwich’” Hart recalls. “I said, ‘It’s going to be better with tomato paste and herbs from our garden’, and we grated in some carrots and Farmer Foodshare kohlrabi and green onions.” Responses were pretty skeptical, with someone saying, “What IS kohl-rab-i?” But after the meal was eaten the results were much more enthusiastic, with one member exclaiming “That put Manwich to SHAME!”

But the impact doesn’t stop there. Access is the first step, but Hart tells us the results have been deeper. “The value of the donation is nutritional and economic, but also cultural, therapeutic, and political. Many members have been delighted to find something in their meal that they have not had since childhood. Muscadine grapes, snap peas, and turnips brought up fond memories. The donations provide access to healthy meals, but we also use it as a tool in our programming. The act of using the ingredients is an opportunity for engaging in meaningful work and creating community/social opportunities. And this spurs conversations about local food and big agriculture.”

This is our greatest hope. That we can nourish and transform lives. And thanks to you, the community, we have begun to see the transformative power of good food.