Editor’s note: DC Service Corps Volunteer PJ Herrera shares about a new health and wellness program he helped develop at his ministry site, So Others Might Eat (SOME).

Food changes lives. Think about it! Likely some of your best memories have revolved around a dinner table, right? What about the times when someone shared a home-cooked dish or brought you a pastry out of the blue to cheer you up? When we come together for holidays, it usually involves, for better or worse, a near-gluttonous meal. Even the Eucharistic feast, the source and summit of our faith, is often described as a “foretaste of heaven,” a “heavenly banquet.” All of this is to say that there is an element about food that brings us together and nourishes more than just our physical appetites. It isn’t limited to just eating a meal either, but preparing it, cooking it, smelling the smells, marveling at the colors, and imagining how good it’s going to taste when you finally get to dig in. Often, it is through food that we can experience joy and get to grow closer to one another, communicating love and care.

It is reflections like these, and the idea that food is a good thing to be celebrated and shared, that influenced the creation of a new program at my service site, So Others Might Eat (SOME). When I started this year, Molly (my supervisor) and I were eager to shake up the health and wellness work that she was already doing, so we reviewed feedback we received from surveys done in late 2016. Residents reported wanting more information on healthy eating on a budget and exercise while also getting consistent programming. What resulted from that feedback was “Healthy Body, Healthy Soul,” a 7-week course, 2 hours per week, that involves mindfulness, hands-on cooking, healthy living discussions, exercise, goal setting, and accountability. It took a few months for us to develop our curriculum and build buy-in, but we started a pilot in one of our properties in mid-January and finished at the beginning of March. There were many positive outcomes, like major weight loss in a majority of participants, increased water intake, participants cooking more for themselves (which is correlated with better health outcomes1), and higher nutrition knowledge than before the curriculum.

While all those successes were important, perhaps the most impactful results were shared during the testimonies we took from residents. When asked what they liked about the program and what they would take away, many noted the emotional effect left upon them. One gentleman stated that he felt appreciated and comfortable sharing and was thankful for that. He said that much of the time in his daily life he is told that he is wrong and is shut down for his ideas. When he talked during Healthy Body, Healthy Soul, however, he always felt listened to and appreciated. Another woman shared that she learned to be patient and listen to what others are struggling with, a skill that has helped everyone strengthen each other. A third participant said that coming to the program helped her build confidence and be more open to discussing her problems. She now has a community to help her and turn to when she struggles. She went on, and everyone agreed when she said this, that Molly and I came in each week and made her feel loved and respected. At this, we both got very emotional! Sure, our main goal was to get our residents to eat healthy and adopt some new habits, but our real ministry is upholding the dignity of our residents and reminding them that, no matter what they have struggled through, they are loved and of worth.

I’ll finish with this: food changes lives. During Healthy Body, Healthy Soul, we focused on food and our relationships to it. There was a lot of talk about nutrition labels, sugar, sodium, drinking water, and how to eat healthy on the cheap. But while those facts are vitally important, I stand by the idea that the meals we shared every session was where some of the real magic happened. Thank God for food and good company to share it with.

Reflection question: When was the last time you enjoyed a meal with others that made you feel loved?