Like other Vermonters, when Jacqueline Labate first heard that the local school needed volunteers to help deliver meals to the children because of COVID-19, she didn’t hesitate: “When the virus hit and everything was shut down, schools immediately got to work to continue feeding kids. Every day all over Vermont, volunteers are working hard to prepare breakfasts and lunches for every kid in their districts, and shuttling those meals on the regular bus routes. When schools put out the call for help I immediately wanted to volunteer.” (J. Labate, personal communication, May 7, 2020)
But her adult children convinced her otherwise, insisting that it was too much of a health risk, and persuaded her to isolate at home on the family’s off-grid, backcountry homestead. Its 200-year-old farmhouse sits deep in the hills of Topsham in northern Orange Country, looking east towards the White Mountains.
Soon Jacqueline was wondering how she might help from home on Galusha Hill when the idea struck: “I love to cook. Maybe I can make meals for the food shelves.” That same day she saw an online notice about a $1,000 COVID Rapid Response grant offered by the New England Grassroots Environmental Fund (Grassroots Fund). (J. Labate, personal communication, May 7, 2020)
As the founding director of The Growing Peace Project (TGPP), Jacqueline had a positive history with the Grassroots Fund, which has supported the work of TGPP. According to her non-profit’s website, TGPP is
a national peacemaking, social justice, and youth activism initiative, with a local focus on food insecurity. We bring kids together to address the community issues they care about, and to introduce them to our free food teaching garden and food programs. (TGPP, n.d.)
In the grant application, Jacqueline described the project as a “grassroots effort to support community members hardest hit by the effects of COVID-19. Our nonprofit belongs to a network of organizations, churches, food shelves, and volunteers who are working to support families needing food, personal care items, transportation, and more.” (J. Labate, personal communication, May 7, 2020)
An hour after the application was submitted, Grassroots Fund called Jacqueline to say it was approved. She immediately reached out to Carrie Peters, Groton town clerk, and Nancy Frost, retired postmistress in East Corinth, to offer home-cooked meals for their respective food shelves. They were both thrilled, and so it began — feeding the beloved community from a backcountry kitchen:
Labate, J. [Photographer]. Private collection (personal communication, May 7, 2020).
It was Martin Luther King Jr. who popularized the term “The Beloved Community”:
For Dr. King, The Beloved Community was not a lofty utopian goal to be confused with the rapturous image of the Peaceable Kingdom, in which lions and lambs coexist in idyllic harmony. Rather, The Beloved Community was for him a realistic, achievable goal…
In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. (The King Center, 2020)
It’s in that spirit that Jacqueline cooks with agape to feed as many of her neighbors as she can. According to the Women’s Theological Center:
We sometimes say that spiritual leadership is “the use of the power of our deepest vision, values, and hopes as a creative force to strengthen ourselves and our communities, to bridge difference, and to work for justice.” This definition assumes that every individual, group, and community has the capacity to exercise spiritual leadership. (Women’s Theological Center, n.d.)
Jacqueline’s “spiritual leadership” is forever focused on the practical. The grant money was the start, then she began contacting local businesses, as well as her growing network of organizations and people in the Upper Valley and Central Vermont. She told me:
I have since partnered with Hannaford Supermarket in Bradford, who donated a gift card and quart containers, Artesano who donated ice cream containers, a farm friend who donated veggies, and Willing Hands who brings me a car load of food each week. I’m using the grant money to supplement supplies, and my menu is somewhat determined by what food comes to me that week. For example, one week I made potato leek soup since I had an abundance of potatoes. Willing Hands, as you might know, is all about food recovery. Last week they brought me about 100# of fresh fruit and veggies, and several cases of canned food, a dozen loaves of bread, 15 dozen eggs, and more. (J. Labate, personal communication, May 7, 2020)
Jacqueline cooks on Thursdays and delivers on Fridays, and not just to the local food shelves. She also manages to reach families in need who don’t want to go to food shelves. Meals and supplies are delivered directly to their homes as a result of a collaboration with local health clinics and mutual aid networks.
Vermonter Mary Field Belenky — best known as the lead author of the feminist classic, Women’s Ways of Knowing — was Jacqueline’s academic advisor and mentor at Goddard College in the early 80s. In fact, Jacqueline participated in an in-depth interview that Belenky conducted as part of the field research for Women’s Ways of Knowing. In Belenky’s subsequent work on “the public homeplace,” she studied four community-based organizations to look at how women lead:
[T]he metaphors they used are of home, of growth and development. They all say they are creating a family. But what kind? That seemed to me to be crucial because what they’re really talking about is this image that there’s one human family. The organization becomes this precious model of what the human family should look like. (Belenky, 1996, Spring/Summer)
Having raised eight children on Galusha Hill, Jacqueline’s public model is rooted in the family and its ever-changing needs. Thus it naturally occurred to her if people have no money for food, they’re surely struggling to buy basic personal care items – diapers, shampoo, soap, toothpaste, feminine products. When she checked with both Nancy Frost and Carrie Peters, they each said yes, they definitely could use those items at the food shelves.
Now I buy those too. My first purchase was from my friend and colleague Sarah Hooker, bookstore manager for the Vermont College of Fine Arts. The bookstore carries personal items for students during their residencies, and with the college closed they weren’t making any sales. So I stocked up, and Sarah donated snacks. It’s a way of supporting local businesses while being supported by them. (J. Labate, personal communication, May 7, 2020)
Jacqueline realized that “we’d be in this economic disaster for the long haul, and the grant would not go very far.” So she and her daughter Angelina Labate — TGPP coordinator and board president — decided to do a fundraiser, which Angelina immediately put together on Facebook. The response was a groundswell of support. They set out to raise another $1,000, and in the first three days raised twice that.
Jacqueline began sending updates to their 600+ e-news mailing list, and almost daily information to the 14 Upper Valley listservs she belongs to. “Every day I get numerous calls and emails from community members all over the Upper Valley who want to send money or diapers or food, who know someone who needs help, who just want to say ‘thanks for what you’re doing.'”
In a recent update (personal communication, May 7, 2020), Jacqueline wrote,
I don’t know what the future holds for our organization. Like so many others we have lost income, and we’ve had to put our school collaboration on hold and cancel our summer youth activism retreat. I’m confident we’ll bounce back, but now is not the time to worry about it.
Now we just need to help feed our hungry neighbors and get our free food gardens planted so we can do even more. Despite the gravity of this pandemic the return of spring and new life gives me strength and fills me with hope.
The Dalai Lama said, “Our prime purpose in this life is to help others.” Those words remind me that we all can lend a hand.
Jacqueline has lent her hand by feeding more than a few of her neighbors, the beloved community, during a time of increased need due to the corona crisis.
But that’s the beginning of this story, the end is still unfolding.
Oakes, T. [Videographer]. (n.d.) Private collection.
Belenky, M. (1996, Spring/Summer). Women & “public homeplace”: An interview with Mary Field Belenky. Counterpoint XII: 2, 4-5, 22.
The Growing Peace Project (TGPP). (n.d.). About our work. Retrieved from https://thegrowingpeaceproject.org/about/
The King Center. (2020), The King philosophy: The beloved community. Retrieved fromhttps://thekingcenter.org/king-philosophy/
Women’s Theological Center. (n.d.). What Is spiritual leadership? Retrieved from http://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/womenstheologicalcenter.pdf
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APA cite in text as: (Mandatta, 2020)
APA cite in full References as: Mandatta, R. (2020). Feeding the beloved community from a backcountry kitchen. Vermont Psychology. Retrieved from https://wp.me/p4elXk-GL
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Robert Mandatta is the editor of Vermont Psychology. During the height of the corona crisis he was stranded on the remote east coast of Barbados, while his wife, Jacqueline Labate, cooked with agape in their home on Galusha Hill in Vermont.