I first learned about Brigaid through one of my friends who had been conducting interviews with founder Dan Giusti for a newspaper article she was writing. Being a Connecticut College student, I often find it difficult to extend my consciousness beyond the “bubble” that is our campus up on the hill. While I never volunteered in downtown New London, except for a few times when mandated by class, I found myself drawn to the community meals on Wednesday nights this semester, compelled by Brigaid’s awesome mission and story.
After learning more about how Brigaid came to be and hearing Dan speak at a food justice panel at Connecticut College, some friends and I were approached by Kevin, Brigaid’s charismatic and driven communication director. He asked us to help volunteer at the community meals and, of course, we were thrilled to be a part of the movement in any way possible.
The Wednesday community dinners at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School are a special experience. Not only are you guaranteed a delicious and thoughtfully crafted meal for only five dollars, but there is an atmosphere that is getting harder and harder to come by in modern day America. It seems that our culture is full of driving from one appointment to the next and eating our solo take-out meals on the way. While Brigaid does offer take-away meals at the Wednesday night dinners, the atmosphere of the cafeteria is notably calmer and more interactive than many other dining experiences.
These dinners create an environment where the entire community can come together and sit down for a meal. Staying true to the mission of bringing high quality food to the people of New London, satisfying, scratch-made meals are all carefully prepared right in front of you by Dan himself. As you move through the line waiting for your meal to be individually plated, the radio in the kitchen plays soft – or not so soft – throwbacks. In the background, the Brigaid chefs move around the kitchen, swiftly maintaining the flow of food. The hum of discussion and children playing around the cafeteria set the tone for a relaxed and community oriented dining experience.
Last Wednesday, as my friends and I were volunteering in the kitchen, I took the opportunity to walk around and talk with community members who had come to enjoy the Jerk Chicken with rice and peas. One great thing about these meals is the wide range of people who attend these dinners. The first group I sat down with was a mother who was eating with about five elementary school children. When I asked one of the little girls if she liked the meal, she looked up at me, chicken in hand, gave me a big smile, and nodded her head quickly. Her mother explained that they had learned about the Wednesday night dinners from her daughter’s elementary school where Brigaid’s chefs were also working to revamp school food for the kids. The daughter then added that she loved the new meals at her school.
While the next two groups of diners I spoke with were both from different backgrounds, they had one thing in common — they loved the fact that these community meals brought them together. From the former colleagues of Brigaid chefs to senior living residents, they all sat and enjoyed the meal in a space none of them would have envisioned as their dining area a year ago. I especially enjoyed talking with the seniors about the local archaeology sites in the New London area, because when I told them I was an Anthropology major at Connecticut College, their eyes lit up and we sparked a long discussion.
It is amazing how these community dinners are not only affordable and accessible to people, but they also work to enhance one of the best aspects of food: company. While Brigaid’s main focus has undoubtedly been on reworking and rethinking the food in New London’s schools, these Wednesday night dinners have gone above and beyond to bring something new to the town. They have created an event where all members of the community are prompted to pause, come together and engage with one another — because what brings people together better than great food?
Moriah McKenna is a senior at Connecticut College studying biology and anthropology with a concentration in archaeology.