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Tamara Keith: People's Park, Inside Out

Posted October 6, 1999

Tamara Keith

People's Park sits right between my house and campus. In the last three years, I probably walked past it 500 times and through it only twice.

I had a gut reaction to steer clear every time I came near the square block of grass and trees. It was easy for me to ignore its existence. There was never a good reason for me to venture into the park's borders, and I had heard too many bad things about it.

But all that changed a few weeks ago. One of my professors at the journalism school assigned my classmates and me to volunteer at a soup kitchen and write a 600-word article about the experience.

I decided to volunteer with an organization called Food Not Bombs, which serves warm vegetarian lunches in People's Park six days a week. It's sort of an informal soup kitchen, where the cooks, kitchen and menu change every day.

On the day I volunteered, the "cook house" was the Chateau student co-op on Hillegass Ave., located a block south of the park and a block north of my house.

I arrived at Chateau around noon. There I met Craig, Cathy and a man named Dress, who wore a blue tie died dress with tennis shoes and matching blue socks.

They put me to work right away, cutting bite-sized pieces of cantaloupe for a fruit salad. The melons were covered with mold, but that didn't seem to bother the other volunteer chefs.

Apparently all the food used by Food Not Bombs has something wrong with it. They get produce from grocery stores around Berkeley that is no longer fit to sell, cut off the ugly parts and cook it up.

On the day I was there, the menu included a curried stir fry with potatoes, tomatoes, yellow bell peppers and cabbage; a bread stuffing with sauerkraut, stale bread and tomatoes; lentils; rice and a fruit salad with cantaloupe, peaches and strawberries. It sounds strange, it looked even stranger, and I didn't even want to know what it tasted like.

Three hours later, when all the cooking was done, we piled the food into two large carts and dragged them over to People's Park. When I stepped into the park the only thing on my mind was a desire to feed a quickly forming crowd of food-seeking people.

Before we had a chance to get the food off the cart, a huge line formed. These people were clearly expecting us. Some even had their own bowls and forks ready.

I served the fruit salad, while other volunteers picked up spoons and started dishing out the other entrees. I was amazed by how much everyone appreciated the food. Few people were picky eaters, and almost everyone asked for extra spoonfuls. Because I had seen the moldy fruits and vegetables before they were cleaned and diced, this all seemed a bit odd to me.

An older man named J J Pinto helped me understand. As he passed through the line, he said to one of the people next to him "this sure beats dumpster diving." When you put it that way, partially rotten food sounds pretty good.

As I interacted with the 100 or so people who walked past my bucket of fruit salad, I realized that there wasn't much to be afraid of. The people in People's Park are just like the rest of us. They're human too.

School is supposed to be a place where you experience new things and change your outlook on life. This assignment helped me see something that I'd glanced at from a distance for three years. People's Park is a different place when viewed from the inside out.

Tamara Keith is a student at the Graduate School of Journalism.



October 6 - 12, 1999 (Volume 28, Number 9)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the
Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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