As current organizer of Free Meal, served every day around noon in the Sun Court on Center Street, Brooks has been trying to convince Moab that the service is intended for everyone, and those people who think they don’t belong there, well, perhaps they belong there most of all. But, Brooks said, if more people don’t start participating and the community doesn’t pay attention, the Free Meal kitchen may finally close.
“We’ll have to see what happens,” Brooks said. “But where do you set the boundaries? If this is going to work in the long run do we need to change strategies or do we just need to give up. Free Meal isn’t accomplishing the goal of broadening comfort zones for people.”
“Broadening comfort zones” is Brooks’ main goal for Free Meal. He wants people to challenge themselves to accept unconditional food, and share in the intimacy of eating with people they would probably never otherwise socialize with.
“Free Meal is not political, not aimed at any particular group,” said Brooks. “There isn’t really a cause... It’s just, ‘Come and eat this food ‘cause it’s going to go to waste.’”
People mistakenly believe Free Meal is a charitable organization and that they will be taking food from someone in need. But Brooks stresses that the food used – still edible leftovers and goods from restaurants, caterers, events, service stations and distribution companies – would otherwise go to waste. Why buy lunch when there is perfectly good food that needs to be eaten, Brooks asks.
“One of the biggest areas people are uncomfortable with is the fact that there is no donation jar at Free Meal,” said Brooks. “There are people who won’t eat unless they slip me a dollar, and some of them can’t afford that dollar. It’s funny, because Free Meal isn’t a charity but people who need free food aren’t comfortable receiving it.”
Brooks says that it is often the socially conscious folks who don’t realize that, in this instance, the more mouths there are to feed, the more likely it is that they will continue to be fed. Brooks’ theorizes that when the financially stable businessperson drops by for lunch, his actions tell the unemployed man, down on his luck, that there is no shame in accepting the free meal. Brooks believes that unconditional giving and receiving are equally noble and may depend on one another.
“In the area of unconditionality, there are times in our lives when we do have to receive. You can’t do it alone,” Brooks said. “And Free Meal is an exercise in getting comfortable with that.”
Still there is something that keeps the community from participating in Free Meal. Claiming to support the program is not enough – Brooks said Moab can support Free Meal by putting their mouths where their money is.
“It’s really funny that something so simple as free food, that shouldn’t be controversial, ends up causing so much discomfort for people,” said Brooks. “If we said, ‘Free Food! Read our advertisement about time-share condos!’ people would have no problem about it. They’d eat the free food, take the brochure and they’d probably never even look at it.”
Another problem, facing Free Meal, is a lack of volunteers. Brooks believes the operation relies too heavily on him and must stand on its own with a stable base of volunteers and routines that can sustain it. But many current volunteers are planning to leave Moab this month, and that would leave the program short on cooks, dishwashers and people to transport the food.
Brer Ershadi and Heila Habibi started Free Meal almost three years ago, serving dinners three times a week outside the Moab Information Center. Ershadi said he and Habibi began to step away from the operations side of Free Meal when Habibi got pregnant. A few very supportive people wanted to take it over. Brooks, who had been volunteering, pushed to offer Free Meal seven days a week.
Ershadi said he hopes Free Meal will continue to be available, even if only for one day a week.
“I think anything is better than nothing just because it gives people in the community a reason to gather in a public space and share food with each other, which is an ancient human bonding experience,” Ershadi said. “Everyone is welcome and everyone can share that space in a state of openess and friendship.”