Building A New World In Uncertain Times

While the world falls apart, Katina Parker builds. Really, she cooks, and from her own living space has created hospitality for thousands in Durham, NC. Parker is also a terrific writer, and here tells an engrossing story about the work she is doing building community in her neighborhood.
Eyes dancing, skin effervescent. Marcus Bass blessed me with that compliment as he snuck a love offering into my hand and then skip-ran into the house, hugging to his chest two hefty aluminum pans filled with smoked chicken, savory brown beans and herb rice, roasted cherry tomatoes, broiled citrus carrots, braised eggplant, buttered garlic corn, sesame green beans, charred broccoli, smashed yams, and grilled beets tropi-cal (pronounced trop-ee-cal, long on the “callllllll” like Callllll-ee-for-nyuh). Oh. Cabbage. Smoked cabbage and caramelized onions too.
It was a Sunday night. I’d just dropped plates off for a family in need, Natalie Bullock Brown’s son (who loves my cooking so much he’s now my honorary nephew), and Bree Newsome/her partner Marcus. Everybody told me to stay home and rest but I was happy tired and wanted to get the food to my folks fresh.
That last day, the day we create the Gratitude Plates, that’s my favorite day. The five consecutive days cooking in a temperature I call “heat set on hell,” the focused vigilance on keeping all our fridges cool and our volunteers safe and well, providing 1,500 with multiple cooked meals, it all culminates on the day we deck out these aluminum half-pans with the bounty we crafted together. We send these “Gratitude Plates” out to individual families in need; my neighbors who tolerate all the noise, the cars, the savory-smelling smoke; volunteers who show up sunny and eager and over-stay their shifts; donors and beloveds who welcome the bright hope that is our culinary magic.

Since April, Feed Durham has provided 5,000 people with multiple home-cooked, nutrient-dense meals, through 12 different community partnerships – shelters, missions, and individuals who provide for others from their own homes. We’ve donated 4,000 pounds of farm fresh chicken and 10,000 pounds of produce and shelf-stable foods to our community partners and local families.
We cook again August 20th through 23rd for 1,300+ people. We’re way behind on fundraising. Please donate today and repost our campaign to help us reach our funding goal by this Sunday night. For our August cookout, we’re distributing Love Notes to everyone who receives a meal and sending out food education materials to let people know what each vegetable we’ve prepared contributes to their health. We’re also hiring 2 Site Coordinators to help us stay on-schedule and train volunteers. During our Fall iteration, we’ll launch a book program featuring revolutionary texts for readers, young and old.
Cash App $BullCityEats
If you’d like to learn with us as a volunteer, please message FeedDurhamNC-at-gmail-dot-com
Feed Durham may be the only place within the Triad where you can prepare food for folks in need and be welcomed, celebrated even, as an openly queer, trans or gender-nonconforming person. Most food distribution programs are religiously-affiliated. While, I’m extravagantly comfortable showing up “gay as the day is long” in church space to contribute my gifts (and daring somebody to say something to me), many are not. My confidence stems from knowing “what I got.”
These plates embody thoughtfulness, goodwill, attention-to-detail and culinary craft. Faith in the process. One foot in front of the other.
This is a love offering. Not an order placed at a restaurant. Everything is made fresh and on-site, sourced from local farms. Not a single vegetable comes from a can or a box or even a freezer. We season, caress and massage every serving with love. And find the balance between maintaining exactitude, standards and flexibility.
Once a month, my yard becomes an ever-changing terrain. Shelves, tables and tents move according to our shifting needs.
Folks experience wonder, hope, comraderie, new beginnings, and transformation when they volunteer and bear witness to what ingenuity, determination and people power can birth when we step out on faith.
Neigbors approach, cash in hand, wanting to buy plates or simply support.
“Why are you doing this?”
Snapping peas like you used to do at grandma’s, Dodie with the light eyes scanned my yard – starting at the back, where people scrubbed produce and washed dishes in outdoor sinks with drain lines to the sewer; a bedroom-sized fridge trailer hummed; a tent full of boxed cabbage, corn, watermelons; a carport that sheltered 2 refrigerators and 2 smokers, ceiling fans newly installed by my neighbor Matt to help us stay something like cool; a front yard that hosted 3 smokers, a bison-sized propane grill, a cooking station with 10 burners going, 2 griddles, another sink with a drain line, multuple tented veggie prep stations. All spread out for safety and sanitation.
“Why are you doing this?”
I’d been asking myself the same thing for weeks. Daily. Sometimes hourly.
Dodie pointed knowingly to the sky and I nodded. Sometimes you just gotta follow and see where God takes you. It’s true. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was giddy about the extended residency I’d planned for myself. Shutdown is an introvert artist’s dream. All these visions I’d start, relish, explore and share. Visions that are often waylayed by work travel and are now wrestling with Feed Durham for my attention.
“God put it on my heart.”
My ankles ache and my legs swell after five 18-hour days, walking, lifting, squatting, pushing, pulling. The first time we cooked, on the first day, we ended after midnight. My lower body locked up from dehydration. Showered and prostrate on my back, had to ask my daughter to put my pajama pants on for me. Every room in our house, our cats, our dogs, my entire body smelled like smoke from one full moon to the next.
For one week each month, our entire routine morphs. At first my 10yo complained, but now she sees herself as an innovator, a problem solver, someone who can make something out of nothing.
I got people around me who didn’t know that they could, but now they know. We talk about the guaranteed chaos and probable violence of this election season and brainstorm how we’ll take care of one another. We study and grow together, build out skillsets that will save our lives and the lives of our loved ones in the near future. I’m grateful to each of our volunteers for finding me, for figuring this out with me, for trusting and building with me. My new cooking, protest, “a better world is coming/we are the change we want to see” family.
Our July Cookout was a mixed blessing of smooth and mysterious chaos. Just a couple weeks into North Carolina’s questionable reopening, the day we loaded in, several volunteers cancelled due to potential COVID exposure, leaving large gaps in our daily schedules. There had been no cancellations during our previous cookouts. We spent all our days filling in for those missing hands.
That Friday, while our volunteers plated out 230 individual meals for elders, the sky dropped Biblical rain, but only over my house. Everywhere else – radiant. The earth rumbled as if she too were hungry. We urgently restaged tents and kept plating while we sang and cheered every time it thundered. The downpour put us behind on every single delivery and pick-up by at least 90 minutes. Our community partners were gracious and thankful that we came through, but I know they worried that we wouldn’t.
SpeeDeeQue, the local printer where I get all my copies made, generously agreed to print and cut 1,500 pieces of stationery on cardstock so we could write Love Notes to the people we’re feeding. For free. I sent the artwork to them at 3:30 on a Monday, an hour before we needed it. They had the entire order ready for pick-up at 5pm.
This last cookout, I had difficult experiences with two of our community partners that left me pensive about how people behave when they’re scared or don’t trust the goodness in others.
Then this note wandered into my inbox:
“I’d love to learn more about Feed Durham. I had an extreme family emergency back in May that impacted every facet of my life – even my ability to work/pay bills which was complicated by everything tied to COVID. When l returned to work, many days l had not eaten for a day or so starting my shifts. On a day l would have had to walk home to East Durham, a coworker popped up by chance and gave me a ride, stopping by Feed Durham on the way to take me home. You gave me a pan that fed my household until pay day. I want to thank you graciously and hopefully contribute somehow/way also.”
That coworker was a dear friend who’d stopped by to pick up a Gratitude Plate and wanted to know if I had extra for one of her staff, who waited quietly in the car.
Dodie, when you asked me why, that relief she felt when she could feed her family is the why. That she cares enough to pay it forward and sent me a note to encourage us is the why.
I heard on the news that something like 40 milllion people are facing eviction as we head into the winter months, cold and flu season. All these people living in fear about what’s next. Even if they’re extended grace. The stress of the not knowing before intervention comes, that people are forced to live in terror because our government withholds necessary aid, believing they’re lazy and won’t work.
I invite my friends in other cities to take up the mantle of learning about food safety in the time of COVID so they can feed the folks around them.
Well-nourished people are hopeful, dreaming, scheming, believing, revolution-making people. VOTING PEOPLE. Strategic starvation is a tool of colonialism – war – that renders us defenseless and desperate. Widens the gap for what’s possible at a time when the quality of public education and public safety are guaranteed to be insufficient for our most vulnerable neighbors.
What do you think happens to hungry children with learning deficiencies? Who do their parents become to feed them?
These are our children’s friends. Cousins. Neighbors.
What are we willing to do to look out for one another, to maintain our kids’ respect and belief in us?
Thanks to my growing Cooking Family for all the joy and excitement you bring to being together and helping friends we don’t know. Thank you for washing and chopping vegetables for hours, for cleaning up, for assembling and moving things, for learning-on-the-spot, for accepting gentle and sometimes urgent feedback, for taste testing, for sharing your ideas, for getting screened for COVID, for becoming a place of opportunity and optimism for one another.
Thank you to our roving documentation team for helping us tell a story that we hope will inspire others to do similar work in their communities. Thank you, Mikel, Saleem, John Laww, and DL.
Special thank you to my neighbor Matt, a mechanical engineer who almost went to culinary school. Matthew lifted our trailer fridge and placed it in my yard with one of his tractor doohickies, fixed leaky outdoor spigots, installed ceiling fans, checked the temperature on the fridge trailer late at night, and offered many helpful tips.
Special thanks also to Erin, who spends at least 20 hours shopping for Feed Durham each time we cook, and resourcefully recruits help for some of our harder-to-fill needs, is at my house at 7am on Load-Out day to clean off the carport and make sure all our rentals and loaners go back to their respective homes.
Thank you to all who help us fundraise, especially Lynne, Holly, Erin, Helena, Sarah, and Natalie.
Thank you to several of our first-time volunteers -Archana, Kari, Virginia, Sarah, Natalie Bullock Brown, Tema (who created gorgeous Love Notes) and the dozens of new faces I’m not connected to on social media.
And, as always, thank you to Feed Durham’s core Cooking Crew – Abigail, Caleb, Kailey, and now Joe and Eden. Whenever I see any of you walking up my drive, I know it’s going to be ok.
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