Ten years ago today I witnessed the most phenomenal act of community I have ever seen. I hope it is not the last. What came together that day was the vision of a couple of young women, the efforts of over forty farms, the planning and precision of ten pairs of chefs, the enthusiasm of an inspired group of volunteers and some miracles of mother nature herself.
To back track, in March of 2010 I was approached by an acquaintance I knew as a landscape designer and local famers daughter wanting to elevate the conversation about design, land use and place. I was intrigued and though I warned her I had never done anything like this before, we decided to jump in headfirst, especially when we switched from a one chef catered meal to a collaborative extravaganza of local food. The following is a blog entry from that time:
“How would you like to organize a dinner of local food for 500 people at the base of a vacant grain elevator?”
“Um, I have no catering or much restaurant experience.”
Almost that simply and with as much positive attitude, I have found myself in this new role that oddly calls on most of my life experiences. Pseudo waitress at Baker’s, divorced from a chef who I helped put through the Culinary Institute of America, hostess for a minute, organic farm apprentice, farmer’s market bouquet maker, Local Food Forager for Whole Foods Market, along with a parallel career as a painter and art professor. From this range of situations, it turns out that the relationships I have developed with the farmers have been the most beneficial and meaningful. Take note of that fact. Twenty-five years of working and the people who grow my food are the ones I get the most sustenance from in so many ways.
So as to the dinner; I agreed to coordinate this massive event because it intrigued me that someone thought it up and was convinced it could be done. I saw a wonderful opportunity to feature local chefs who are already buying local and bragging about it on their menus, hopefully inspiring others to do so. And what a great market for our area growers at a time of year when the abundance is often overlooked by customers busy with school, sports and already planning for holiday overextension. With a shared vision of a long table blending folks from all walks of life, breaking bread and talking about the massive grain elevator behind them and what its use and disuse could mean, Anne Trumble and I have thoroughly enjoyed the ride this planning process has been.
We were a little daunted; I even considered backing out, so we tried one version of how the day could go and decided it didn’t quite fit. Accepting the challenge along with the satisfaction of doing it in as collaborative way as possible, we dove in. Chefs were invited and many responded. We apologize if you were missed, and would love for you to let us know if you are also using local food on your menus. Feats of scheduling have been performed and we have met twice to discuss service and menu.
Details are still coming together and may be altered by the very last-minute produce offerings at the market that weekend. Starting with salad mix, dressing with Nebraska made vinegar, cheese, bread, pickles, preserves and honey; we will enjoy five more courses throughout the afternoon. There will be vegetable stew, pig roasted on site the day before, and in a stunning coup, bison will take over for beef as the red meat entree, head to toe, no less. This is one of the amazing outcomes of our discussions so far – responsible meat purchasing. Rather than leave a farmer with pounds and pounds of cuts or grind that they can’t readily sell, we will be utilizing whole animals. And the chefs are already talking about how they can work together in the future to share purchasing and keep this going.
This is when I get goose bumps: seeing the possibilities for real change in our food buying habits. Is this the goal of Emerging Terrain’s Stored Potential project? I don’t think there was a goal besides conversation. Maybe conversation about land use sounds irrelevant to you, but everything around you is based on land use. From what you eat to how you get to work to where you live; land use is involved. Like politics, it is not about right and wrong, and even though it often is decided somewhere else, it does affect your day to day life. Now change only happens when you start talking about things, but conversation in and of itself is a necessary and dying art. Face to face talk about what you see around you. And over such wonderful food? Who doesn’t want to join us?
As I read this this, I am overwhelmed by the similarity to conversations we are having today about Holy Family Community Center. The Omaha food scene went on to grow into a vast network of chefs and farmers working together. I even tried to help that along by founding the local food wholesale distribution company Lone Tree Foods. I also tried to establish a Wednesday night farmers market that lasted a couple of years and consulted with famers on humane practices. I was involved with an amazing group of people who tried to start a Local Food Policy Council which has evolved into many other forms since then. I have watched other groups step up and carry the local food torch such as No More Empty Pots, Whispering Roots, and the Big Garden. Which brings me to another amazing similarity to today’s conversations. In my new role with the Society of St Vincent de Paul, I am not directly part of the food insecurity work, but cheering on from the newsletters and websites I maintain. I am proud to once again be involved with feeding people good food, no matter how indirectly for the moment. Some day we hope to host dinners, maybe not as extravagant as the Harvest Dinner, but equally impactful. Reflecting on that amazing day and the toast to the famers and chefs that brought tears to my eyes, I still hope we can renew our energy in the direction of building a truly local sustainable food system. I will do what I can with the remarkable resource of the community center and the people it is drawing to it. We will grow, prepare and eat food together while telling stories or listening to music or watching a play. We will get to know our neighbors better and break down the walls of fear that grow out of difference. We will work to prevent poverty and homelessness where we can and perhaps even sit down to another dinner for 500 someday.
Here are links to websites with more photos and writing about the event: http://emergingterrain.org/archives/practice/harvest-dinner
Lori Tatreau, Director of Holy Family Community Center
One year ago we were still buzzing after our “first annual” Churchyard Harvest Festival at Holy Family, with musicians on a stage under the trees, artists under canopies and food trucks on Izard Street.
We didn’t know at the time that within months in our chapel we would host members of the Omaha Symphony and Liz Gre performing her original composition based on stories of her mother. Or that 30 high school students from East Omaha schools would gather to listen and talk with two dynamic musicians and share a meal catered by a Latino chef.
We didn’t know that the archbishop would choose to close the Holy Family Church parish, and put the care and use of the historic building in the care of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, which had offices in the old rectory.
Such plans we had. Such momentum. Such a sense of the spirit moving.
And then the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and like everyone, we are adjusting to our new world. But our plans and dreams are still intact, and we work every day to take steps along the road to the future, when we can gather people in what is now the Holy Family Community Center.
This month we launch the Listen & Learn Lunch Series with stories recorded in our choir loft told by Black Catholics, all members of Saint Benedict the Moor parish. We have secured a partnership with The Moth, which will provide training and opportunity to craft and tell personal stories, letting our community members share experiences with their neighbors. We will screen art films and sponsor panel discussions among Omaha artists.
All of the above will be posted or streamed from Holy Family. One day, hopefully soon, all of this and more will take place live and together in Holy Family, but none of us know when that day will come.
Here’s what we do know, however.
Every day 70-100 people, mostly homeless, line up at our door to be handed a sack lunch. Every day we load 140 more lunches on a van and send them out to the streets of East Omaha, including to seniors living in high-rise apartments.
Every day dozens of people wait at our door to receive free clothing: socks, underwear, pants and shirts, hoodies and jackets, and soon, hats, gloves and winter coats.
Every day, volunteers from around Omaha, some members of the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, many not, gather to make those lunches, to hand out sacks and drinks and friendly words, to drive the vans, to find pants and shirts that fit.
Yes, we have plans for the future, architectural renovations, education and performance, training and financial assistance. But mostly — right now — we feed and clothe the homeless, like the folks at Holy Family have done for decades. We are committed, we are honored, to continue the legacy of service that the priests and nuns and generations of Holy Family parishioners started, maintained and passed on to us.
It is a role that we are learning, a community we are getting to know, problems we are helping to solve, and a mission of service we invite all of you to share with us.
Bruce Noble, Director of Holy Family Ministries
Earlier this year the Holy Family parish was merged with another one and the building was left in the care of the Society of St Vincent de Paul of Omaha, which has District offices here. Though in different ways, the Society and Holy Family have been known for supporting people in times of crisis since the 1870’s. People can call the Society’s Help Line when they need assistance with rent, utilities or other support. People can come to Holy Family for a free sack lunch, clothing or basic personal care items when they have no other option. We have an exciting opportunity here to support people in new ways and build the bridge from homelessness, through poverty and into successful participation in a thriving community. We hope to do this through education, the arts, and of course food.
In order to grow our community this way, we need to transform the physical space, find more partners, and begin to tell each other our stories. This historic building needs everything from deep cleaning to major renovations, from program planning to fundraising and we are faced with starting all this in the midst of a global pandemic. We are also acutely aware of the devastating issues facing our neighbors who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and wanted to offer a place for them to speak, while we all listen and learn. As we do what we can on the inside of the building and until we can invite you in to participate, we thought we could reach out to gather stories one at a time and begin to share them through video. These stories in the Listen & Learn Lunch series are part Ted Talk, part the Moth style, part conversation, part interview. Our first group of stories features members of the St Benedict the Moor parish, who recently rejoined the Society of St Vincent de Paul. These are folks of all ages and backgrounds and each has a fascinating story, just as every one of you do.
Future series will include the homeless we serve here at Holy Family and other groups of people who may not have an opportunity to share their stories. We can learn so much about our neighbors when we just take a few minutes to really listen. Our differences may suddenly seem not so different and our similarities can become striking. The divide between us can be bridged through our stories and fear and confusion eased. We hope to offer our beautiful Chapel space to the community in the future as a place to share these stories, and of course to have lunch, because food is another bridge that can cross divides and bring people together. Someday, you will be able to bring your lunch and a friend and listen and learn here with us, but for now, we offer these videos of stories from our community.
It means the world to me to be able to share these stories and to work for the Society here at Holy Family. A million serendipitous coincidences have led me and the other folks that are here to this place at this time and it is amazing to realize that. Some would say it was preordained, some would say it is the hand of God or the spirit moving us. Whatever name you have for it, I am incredibly grateful, though slightly stunned, to find myself here on my 50th birthday. This is a wish come true that I didn’t realize I had until I looked back at all of the things I have done that brought me here. Birthday reflections lead me to ponder old wishes such as having a painting retrospective by this age; living by the ocean; running a bison ranch or a flower farm; singing in a band; or hosting regular dinner parties in a loft. Some of these wishes remain, some will clearly never happen (I leave you to ponder which). All things considered though, I am in the right time and place with the right people to begin this next era. I hope you will join us!
Lori Tatreau, Director Holy Family Community Center