Our garden volunteer, Ciji, has been fighting hunger for years now. Her experience growing up in a rural farming community where she saw food insecurity affect her neighbors has shaped her decisions as an adult.
In high school, she remembers that a majority of her classmates received federal assistance and that her friends’ families were having a hard time making ends meet. Even the farmers who were growing food to sell couldn’t afford to feed their own families.
As a trained chef, she began working in a restaurant, but she felt that the working conditions weren’t optimal and that her co-workers were struggling to put food on their tables. That’s when she decided to use her culinary skills to make a difference.
“Fighting hunger is important because if you’re hungry that’s basically all you can think about. It completely takes over a person’s life when they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. They don’t know if their kids are going to have dinner tonight,” Ciji said.
She began working part time as a chef for a nonprofit in D.C. that provided two hot meals a day for individuals in need. Within a couple of weeks, she was running the kitchen full time along other trained chefs.
When Ciji moved to Texas from D.C. a year ago, she needed a break from the kitchen. The warmer weather opened up a new opportunity for her to fight hunger and to pursue another passion: gardening.
The Food Bank’s garden volunteer opportunity was a perfect way for her to "play in the dirt", as she calls it, and to learn the ins and outs of gardening in Texas.
“One of the reasons why I wanted to come do the garden here is I’ve never tried to garden in Texas and I knew there was a lot to learn having moved from the Northeast,” Ciji said. “It’s been great to get to work with Greg [the Food Bank's gardner] and to get to ask him questions and learn how things actually grow here.”
Ciji quickly realized that gardening in Texas was a lot different than in D.C. At the Food Bank, she was planting seeds in October, which was something she didn’t think could be done.
“The first thing that was shocking to me was realizing that you could grow stuff year round because the weather is so much nicer,” Ciji said.
As a trained chef, Ciji loves seeing the whole process of getting a seed from a packet into a dish on the plate. Though she wouldn’t be cooking, she knew that volunteering in the garden helped get organic, nutritious food on the dinner tables of families in need.
“I think what I like the most is how tangible [volunteering] is. It is very direct. I’ve pulled this carrot out of the ground and then somebody will be eating it. It’s a very clear line that you can draw between what you’re working on and how it helps people,” she said.
Ciji has been volunteering with us since 2018 and has dedicated more than 95 hours of her time to helping us in the garden. Her extensive culinary background is especially helpful for harvest days when she helps Food Bank gardener Greg Mast with quality and portion size control of the produce.
“She comes every week and I have come to depend on her for leading projects with other volunteers when I need to devote my attention to multiple priorities,” Greg said. “I’m grateful for all of the garden volunteers, but those special few like Ciji who come consistently are an indispensable part of what makes the garden a successful program.”
Thank you, Ciji, for all your hard work in the garden and for helping us provide healthy, organic produce to our neighbors in need!