Smile Politely

Cooking for community: A “rustic” affair

A unique feature of the Common Ground Food Co-Op (CGFC) that makes the-more-than-a-grocery-store a true community center is its educational program. Its Flatlander Classroom hosts dozens of community members each week who are eager to learn how to easily, yet successfully, whip up garlicky tofu and greens, ferment their own kimchee, or design their perfect garden. One look at the schedule shows the impressive and seemingly endless offering of classes, though perhaps none are more meaningful than Stone Soup, a monthly opportunity for participants to do a little to give a lot back.

Last Friday, I went to Stone Soup, and participated as a cook. As a different group of community volunteers does each month, we prepared a meal to deliver to the Champaign TIMES Center for Men in Transition. The meal was very simple: a single but hefty pot of soup. A majority of our ingredients — potatoes, white and green onions, green peppers, ham, sausage, and a combination of spices — were gathered from the CGFC’s shrink, or food they would otherwise not sell due to imperfections.

There were five of us cooking, and in about an hour we were the proud producers of a healthy, hearty, and so-named for our lack of attention paid to consistency in our dicing, “rustic” meal.

Doing the cooking was both relaxing and enjoyable. Our mix of university students and local residents bonded over the arduous task of chopping onions, deciding the “best” method of reducing the eye-stinging is to chop as fast as possible. Monet, an instructor in the CGFC’s “Cooking Healthy on a Budget” series and leader of Friday’s Stone Soup, says her favorite part of teaching classes at the co-op is getting to meet all of the interesting people that come in to learn. “What’s even better is that this class is for such a great cause”, she said of Stone Soup specifically.

The course organizer, CGFC Education Coordinator Maya Bauer, started the monthly event with this sentiment in mind, though not for the first time at the Co-op. The current version of Stone Soup is a relatively recent addition to the course schedule, but its origins date back several decades. The original creators were Bauer’s parents, now long-time co-op owners and then early organizers of the cooperative movement. From the mid-80s until 1991, Jan Kalmar and Bill Taylor organized a weekly event where community members would gather to prepare a meal, collect donations for a local organization, and eat together. Inspired by the message of an old folk tale called Stone Soup that tells of cooperation and sharing food in a time of scarcity, the weekly event of breaking bread and garnering community support is one Bauer remembers fondly of her childhood.

More than 20 years later, the Stone Soup is back at the Co-op, with some differences. For example, despite the enticing smells of potatoes, meat, and vegetables simmering together, all that we cooked on Friday was delivered to the TIMES Center the next day by General Manager, Jacqueline Hannah. Still, Bauer is proud of the legacy the class represents, and the potential it has to spur more initiatives. “It is a simple start and a way for us to build a solid foundation for other ideas in our exciting future as a cooperative”, Bauer says, excitedly.

In Champaign county, where poverty rates are the second highest in the state of Illinois and over 30,000 individuals are food insecure, organizations like the TIMES Center for Men in Transition and those that support it like the CGFC are undoubtedly important. At the TIMES Center, where staff are often over-worked in providing food, overnight lodging, and other services to dozens of patrons, meals prepared at Stone Soup to be heated and served immediately are warmly welcomed.

Details about the next Stone Soup can be found on the CGFC course schedule or in the store. Each class has room for eight cooks, and any others who want to participate in the discussion about two Co-op staples: food and community.

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