SOMERVILLE – Once a month, Alyssa Napoleon bakes a batch of cookies. In itself, that’s no big deal. Added to the efforts of 200 or so other cooks who make up the volunteer corps of Community Cooks, it becomes a very big deal and provides meals to hundreds of hungry, vulnerable, and at-risk people in the area.
Individual efforts have become a collective force thanks to galvanizing efforts of Vicki I, the group’s founder. Some 20 years ago, she and a friend had a modest idea. “My friend heard the Somerville Homeless Coalition wanted some food support,” recounts I. “We got everyone on the block to contribute part of a meal. It turned out to be easy.” Her friend has since moved on, but I continued and the effort grew. “It was an era when many young professionals who were interested in helping the community were moving to Somerville, so we were able to recruit very easily.”
Soon, the model emerged that continues today. Community Cooks is just that: a community of cooks that prepares food for the community. Each volunteer is assigned to a team that provides a meal once a month to a partner organization; these organizations include homeless shelters, women’s and family shelters, youth development programs, providers of support for the developmentally disabled, and more. The team leader hands out dish assignments — main course, salad, side, dessert — and each volunteer purchases the necessary ingredients and prepares a homemade recipe to feed about 15. Then the volunteer drops it at a central location. Each team serves a particular organization, so volunteers develop a sense of community and partnership with one group.
It’s not an overwhelming commitment for volunteers, and many say that’s what drew them to it. “It’s great because it’s only once a month,” says Napoleon. “It’s really convenient for people who work.” She and her boyfriend, Derek Neilson, got involved when they moved to One Summer Street, a church converted to loft condos that’s ground zero for Community Cooks; I lives there as well, and the group is headquartered in the building.
On a recent Wednesday night, Napoleon, who is also a team leader, and Neilson are preparing components of a meal that they will eventually deliver to Respond Inc., a group working to end domestic violence. Napoleon is baking chocolate chip cookies. “There’s just something about a warm chocolate chip cookie,” she says, mixing the classic dough and neatly scooping it onto baking sheets. Meanwhile, Neilson carefully slivers red onion for potato salad. She tends to bake, and he’s more of a savory cook, but neither is fancy or fussy in the kitchen. Fancy is not the point; homemade and wholesome is.
“You don’t have to be an expert,” says Napoleon. “It’s more that it’s a home-cooked meal.”
Ann McCann of Groveland has been volunteering with Community Cooks for eight years. McCann happened to come across an e-mail asking if someone could prepare dessert for 40. (Since then, volunteer cooking assignments have been scaled down to more manageable quantities.) An office worker who retrained for a second career as a pastry chef in her 50s, McCann thought that would be, as she says, “a piece of cake.” From there, she was hooked, eventually becoming a team leader.
McCann, too, enjoys the flexible nature of the work. “Even on my darkest days, when I was so busy, I’d say to myself, ‘It’s only once a month, come on,’ ” says McCann. And the group is not rigid about recipes; if you’re assigned lasagna, you can make whatever kind of lasagna you please.
The convenience and low barriers to entry make Community Cooks appealing to volunteers, but most are in it for the chance to make a difference. “I can’t cook for the whole world,” says McCann. “But I can do my part. A group of everyone doing their part can collectively do a lot.”
That, she says, is really the beauty of Community Cooks: “You cook a little and do so much.”
Community Cooks can be reached at community
email@example.com, or go to www.communitycooks.org.
Jane Dornbusch can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.