GLOUCESTER — Dan Ryan looks at an empty plate the same way a painter considers a blank canvas: a starting point for something delectable. But what was once an exciting moment for the chef is now a symbol of anxiety. He constantly worries that he cannot put food on the table.
After being diagnosed with advanced melanoma in 2010, Ryan, 48, a former chef at The Franklin Cafe in the South End and Gloucester’s Franklin Cape Ann, underwent several surgeries and chemotherapy that drained his family’s savings and forced him to quit his job. He and his wife, Tammy, slashed their budget to stay afloat, eventually dipping into the money set aside for food.
Almost 60 percent of Eastern Massachusetts families have had to make the same tough decision in the last year. According to a recent study conducted by the Greater Boston Food Bank, food insecurity continues to be a growing problem in Eastern Massachusetts, with food assistance agencies seeing more needy people in the last 12 months. The increase is mostly because of sudden illness or unemployment.
Dan and Tammy Ryan turned to The Open Door, a food pantry based in Gloucester, to help keep their kitchen stocked and feed their three children, now ages 20, 16, and 8. Their situation transformed Dan Ryan’s perspective on who is hungry. “I saw a mother with three kids struggling, a 90-year-old woman,” Ryan says, “a guy who lost his lobster boat because he couldn’t make payments. I saw people like me.”
Ryan discovered his love of cooking in 1996, when he worked the line at The Franklin Cafe under the direction of chef and owner David DuBois. With no previous cooking experience, Ryan learned on the job and worked his way up the ranks to sous chef at the South End location and eventually head chef at the Gloucester Franklin. After meeting his wife and starting a family, Ryan became chef at the Eastern Point Retreat House in Gloucester to spend more time at home.
“Dan had a natural talent and took to cooking very fast,” DuBois says. “His athleticism translated really well into the kitchen and he picked things up pretty quickly.”
During his time as a chef, Ryan frequently dropped off leftover food or canned goods at The Open Door, never imagining that the pantry would one day feed his own family. “If we didn’t have Open Door I don’t know what we would have done,” he says. “I didn’t have any sort of image attached with people who came [there] but it really took a lot of my pride to not be able to provide for my family at first.”
Because of public perception, some former middle-class families who turn to food pantries feel humiliation. But the stigma of freeloaders working the system is not the reality, says Catherine D’Amato, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Food Bank, which supplies regional pantries with food. In Eastern Massachusetts, one in 12 individuals require food assistance, according to the Food Bank’s study, and more than half have at least one family member with education higher than a high school diploma. Much like Ryan’s situation, 67 percent of main income earners are out of work, the study shows. “It could be you or me who is hungry and no one would know,” says D’Amato.
Tammy became Ryan’s primary caregiver and the family’s sole source of income, working at Pathways for Children as a health and nutrition assistant. Although Ryan’s diagnosis, initial treatments, and surgeries took a toll on his family, he found that going to the pantry gave them a badly needed routine and comfort in knowing they were supported.
At his home kitchen, Ryan keeps every countertop, dish, and utensil just as clean as he did in his professional kitchens. He says that his children scope out the pantry and kitchen with caution because they’re worried they will mess up their father’s sanctuary. “You clean as you go in a restaurant kitchen and that carries over into my house,” Ryan says. “It should look like you weren’t even there.”
The Open Door provides almost 530,000 pounds of free canned goods, fresh produce, meat, bread, dairy products, and eggs to 1,600-plus households in Gloucester, Rockport, Manchester, Essex, and Ipswich. Forty-one percent of the food comes from the Greater Boston Food Bank.
The Food Bank study shows that almost 75 percent of households require food assistance on a regular basis, a cycle often caused by what Julie LaFontaine, executive director of Open Door, calls “the meal gap.” The families don’t qualify for food stamps, but don’t have enough money to make ends meet. “These aren’t people who are living large,” she says. “When you look at this area of the country, there are not many people who are meeting that threshold.”
The high cost of living in this region, combined with job openings that require higher education and certain skills, are some of the barriers to employment in the eastern part of the state, says D’Amato. It tends to cause a cycle of joblessness and assistance. “There is a disconnect with the jobs that are open and the skills that people have,” she says.
Initially, quitting his chef’s job hurt Ryan’s self-esteem. Multiple surgeries have left him with chronic pain in his right leg and arm, making professional kitchen work difficult. He is now in remission and has one final surgery to help alleviate his pain. When he can, he serves as a volunteer chef at The Open Door, and performs other jobs as needed. One of the first meals he cooked at the pantry was Thanksgiving dinner, with turkey, stuffing, potatoes, and all the fixings. Ryan says the joy on guests’ faces reminded him of why he first fell in love with cooking. “It really struck me that my art plays a much bigger role in people’s lives than I ever thought,” he says. “It was just amazing to watch.”
The smells, the sounds, and the tastes take him back to Shawmut Avenue to a time when he was pain-free and cooking into the early-morning hours, sometimes with fondness, other times with frustration. While cooking a vegetable and chicken stew for a dinner at The Open Door, Ryan’s hand wavers slightly, forcing him to take a quick break from cooking.
“The intensity to get everything right and perfect and see the smiles on people’s faces became infectious to me,” he says. “It’s hard to look back on, but cooking and food hold a much higher importance in my life now.”
Kelly Gifford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kelgiffo.