Food Recovery, Personal Recovery, and Communal Healing: An Interview with Lisa Willmes, Recovery Café San Jose

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Back in 2014, I spent a summer volunteering with a nonprofit that was just opening in my town: Recovery Café San Jose. Recovery Café operated unlike any meal program or shelter I had encountered before; it linked the recovery of food with the recovery of individuals, families and communities. Over tables of hot, healthy food donated from local restaurants, members and volunteers engaged in conversations that led to friendships, trust and healing.

In this café, food created a reason for a very diverse group of people to gather in the same room; the simple act of eating together initiated meaningful journeys with material and social benefits. My experience at the Recovery Café instilled a sense of wonder about the healing impacts of well-distributed food on individuals, communities, and the environment.  

Nearly three years later, Recovery Café San Jose continues to serve food and coffee to people in recovery from traumas such as homelessness, addiction, incarceration, and mental illness. In this interview, I reconnect with café Manager Lisa Willmes and learn more about how Recovery Café operates, what makes the model special, and how it plans to expand.

Gaby: Describe Recovery Café’s overall vision and its context in San Jose, CA. What community needs does RCSJ fill?

Lisa Willmes: Recovery Café San Jose is a healing community for those traumatized by addiction, homelessness, and mental health challenges. While many other programs maintain long waiting lists, or offer services for a limited time, RCSJ is always immediately welcoming and available for long term. RCSJ offers hot meals 4 days a week, weekly Recovery Circles, classes and workshops to learn job and life skills, group activities to build social skills and inner strength, connections to resources and partner agencies as well as relapse prevention.

Gaby: When I last visited RCSJ a few years ago, the organization was just getting started. You provided a few community meals per week, as well as Recovery Circles (peer to peer support groups) and optional group activities. What does your program look like now?

Lisa Willmes: In addition to our meals and Recovery Circles RCSJ offers a robust selection of classes through our School for Recovery. SFR is an 8 week session of classes focusing on four main areas: Addiction and Recovery, Life Skills, Health and Wellness, and Arts and Creativity. Members who complete at least one class for the full 8 weeks are recognized at the end of the session during our awards ceremony receiving a certificate of completion and gift card.

Gaby: Describe your meal program. Where do you get the food that you serve, and how do members serve and eat the food? What role(s) do food and food recovery play in the Recovery café model?

Lisa Willmes: RCSJ offers meals Tuesday - Friday with lunch being offered daily and dinner on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. We receive 3 meals from local non profit, Loaves and Fishes, and 3 meals we prepare in house. Our Chef - along with trusted volunteers and members - creates healthy dishes using produce and other ingredients provided by Second Harvest Food Bank, Veggielution and Fresh Approach. Members help serve lunch and dinner through our buffet line.

Gaby: What are your future goals for Recovery café San Jose, and for Recovery cafés in general? What current challenges and needs do you face?

Lisa Willmes: 2017 is a big year for RCSJ! In March RCSJ will temporarily relocate to a local church as our building begins renovation. The renovation will consist of getting a new state-of-the-art kitchen where we will run culinary classes, an espresso bar where members will learn the barista trade, a new art room, and a computer lab. We plan to be back in our new facility by September. We will reopen to preparing 10 meals in house and being open 5 days a week (Tuesday - Saturday). Once in our new facility we hope to grow our numbers and offer more classes to members. We currently have 100 members and offer 10 Recovery Circles plus classes in our School for Recovery.

RCSJ is proud to provide delicious and nutritious meals to our members, but it can be challenging to secure the dairy and meat proteins we need to serve a balanced meal. We are grateful to our food providers, but are always looking for new donation partners!

Gaby: How can others be involved in Recovery Café’s efforts? Can this model be replicated in different locations? Can students, particularly those in Food Recovery Network chapters, be involved?

Lisa Willmes: RCSJ is based off of the Recovery Café model that began in Seattle almost 15 years ago. Since we have been open (2 1/2 years) there have been other Recovery Cafés popping up along the west coast and more folks are showing interest across the nation. We gladly accept student volunteers and generally have between 2-5 per semester working in the kitchen preparing meals. I am always interested in meeting with folks in the community and would be grateful of Food Recovery Network students being involved with RCSJ.  Currently we have 25 active volunteers who help with meal preparation, facilitate Recovery Circles and run classes.

Follow Recovery Cafe San Jose on Facebook!

5 FRNds-olutions for 2017!

You made it! The holidays are over and 2017 is here! We’re about a week in,and so many of you may be well on your way to making (or breaking) your resolutions.

The term “resolution” is well overdue for a makeover: it’s a term that reflexively brings to mind half-hearted self-improvement kicks - no matter how many resolutions people successfully stick with throughout the entire year.

One way to assist with the completion of your resolutions is to anchor them to a larger movement.  Here at FRN, we’re doing that through the lens of food recovery. If you’re starting to falter on those resolutions already, see if you can factor a few of these into your everyday life!


Normal Resolution:  Keep in touch with long distance friends.

It’s true that reconnecting with a friend can be a little anxiety-inducing, especially over the phone. With that being said, FRN can be a wonderful conversation starter.

If your friend is currently going to college, see if their school has an established chapter of FRN. If you feel comfortable with doing so, suggest that they get involved with an existing club or start one of their own!


Normal Resolutions:  Fight "fake news", add items to your reading list.

Ah, fake news. One can only hope that this trend follows Myspace’s lead – that is, become lost to the sands of time. Forever.

One way to combat this trend is to become well versed in the statistics and data surrounding food waste, food recovery, and other poverty-fighting initiatives.

If you’re already involved with FRN, it’s likely that you’re already familiar with the statistic that 40% of all food produced in the U.S. is wasted, while 1 in 7 individuals go hungry every night. As leaders in the food recovery realm, it’s our responsibility to do a deep dive and learn about the myriad of statistics surrounding food recovery.

ReFed, the National Resource Defense Council, and  FRN’s End of Year Report are all excellent resources for no-nonsense reports of food recovery.


Normal Resolution: Keep your room tidy.

When it comes to roommates, I’ve met some amazing people – one of whom I consider to be a life-long friend. With that being said, I’ve met those who’ve enjoyed turning the refrigerator into a science experiment with expired food.

To avoid being “that roommate,” consider finishing the leftover food from the night before. Not only are you saving money and eating perfectly good food, but your roommates will love you forever.

If you have a roommate that violates the “no mold in the fridge” rule, it might be time to have a talk with them. While this can be uncomfortable to bring up, setting boundaries about cleanliness can help your relationship in the long-term.



Normal Resolution: Have a greater presence on your college campus.

This one’s a no-brainer. If your team has the capacity to do so, take a look at the many opportunities to expand your FRN chapter’s presence on campus!

Want to recruit, fundraise, and promote goodwill during chilly weather? We recommend a hot chocolate drive!


Normal Resolution:  Learn to cook.

The benefits in learning how to cook are endless. In addition to eating healthier, impressing your significant other, and learning a cool skill, you can utilize food that might otherwise be thrown away!

Source reduction is the most effective form of food recovery. Annually, sixty million tons of perfectly edible food never makes it from the farm to store shelves because the produce:

  • Is oddly shaped / too big / too small
  • Will not be ripe during the transportation process


  • Has small blemishes that consumers may find unappealing.

You can purchase “ugly” produce at your local farmer’s market or supermarkets. By financially incentivizing so-called “ugly” produce, you’re helping create a market for source reduction of food waste.


To all of our FRNds, here’s to a wonderful, recovery-filled 2017. With your help, we’ll be able to reach 2 million pounds of recovered food in no time!


FRN's First Nonprofit Partner Feeds Hundreds for the Holidays

James, a volunteer at the Christian Life Center (CLC), moves the recovered food to CLC's refrigerated semi-trailer, with the help of Rosalyn Lam, our Program and Communications Fellow. 

James, a volunteer at the Christian Life Center (CLC), moves the recovered food to CLC's refrigerated semi-trailer, with the help of Rosalyn Lam, our Program and Communications Fellow. 

Early this morning, Pastor Ben of Christian Life Center (CLC), FRN’s first and longest-serving nonprofit partner, got an unexpected surprise from University of Maryland Food Recovery Network chapter just in time for the holidays. The campus dining halls were emptying out their freezers and storage for winter break. “They called me up and they said ‘we got some food for you.’”

When Pastor Ben and his small team of volunteers arrived, they found 8,000 pounds of surplus food from the dining halls, as well as ingredients that never made it to the cutting board. Crates stacked with everything from dinner rolls to smoked ham filled a refrigerated semi-trailer. In his own car, dozens of trays of lasagna, grilled chicken, and dessert bars packed into just about every space available.

Pastor Ben (right) and Eric, who works closely with CLC's food pick-up and distribution program, unpack the van filled with surplus food. 

Pastor Ben (right) and Eric, who works closely with CLC's food pick-up and distribution program, unpack the van filled with surplus food. 

It’s not unusual for a recovery from the campus to yield a few hundred pounds of food, but even today’s haul amazed Pastor Ben. “We just went from serving 100 people to over 200 people, to even more! I needed a dolly just to get the boxes to the car!,” he said with a huge smile on his face.

This weekend, hundreds of families will convene at CLC for holiday mass, dinners and food giveaways, all thanks to donations from the community members and local organizations such as FRN. For Pastor Ben, feeding people is a mission that he works hard to accomplish every day. “I had a lady come today, she didn't have any food,” he remembers. “I said, 'well, you sure did come the right day today! I can give you enough food for as long as you want to eat food!”

Eric and Pastor Ben pose with community member Linda, holding trays of recovered food from University of Maryland's campus.

Eric and Pastor Ben pose with community member Linda, holding trays of recovered food from University of Maryland's campus.

The CLC plans to spread the food throughout senior citizen's centers, children's centers, soup kitchens, shelters, and churches in the area. This recovery was particularly well-timed; in the season of giving, families throughout the county now have holiday meals.

- Words and photos by Antonio Hernandez, Programming and External Affairs Fellow

"Grow Food": The Perfect Blend of Urban Gardening and Hip-Hop

To the casual viewer, the joys of harvesting vegetables and hip hop may seem like an unusual pairing. One view of Appetite For Change’s “Grow Food” will put that notion to rest.


Hitting the sweet spot between “incredibly inspiring” and “ridiculously catchy”, “Grow Food” was was directed by Chancellor Tha Beast in collaboration with Beats & Rhymes, and features volunteers and students involved with Appetite for Change, a North Minneapolis “community-led organization that strengthens families, creates economic prosperity, and encourages healthy living.”  

As a Program Fellow for Food Recovery Network, fan of hip hop, and amateur gardener, I was blown away by this video. Curious about its development (and the genius behind it), I immediately reached out to Appetite’s Development and Communications Manager, Molly Cherland.

According to Cherland, the video was the final project of their Summer 2016 Youth Employment & Training Program, which develops student’s knowledge about urban farming knowledge, encouraging employment readiness skills in the process.

“The youth in our program wanted to share their message - the importance of actively choosing healthy foods - with their peers in a fun, accessible music format,” explains Cherland.

The foundation of hip hop lies in social justice, pride in one’s community, and the detailing of inequality in the artist’s surroundings. Naturally, this genre is fertile ground for the topic of food deserts: geographic regions where the community lack access to grocery stores due to a number of factors, including transportation, low-incomes, and the absence of grocery stores within walking distances. However, communities across the country are developing grassroots solutions to increase access to healthy food within food deserts. Detroit, Chicago, NYC, DC, and Tucson are just a few examples of communities that are developing urban space for community gardening.


What makes “Grow Food” stand out from its contemporaries is that not only is their message relevant, but it’s a great song. In spite of their age, the volunteers in the video are incredibly talented (read: they can spit bars). During the age of Top-40 mumble rap, “Grow Food” is a breath of fresh air. Consequently, people are taking notice. They’ve been featured on VH1’s blog, as well as given a shout-out on Nick Cannon’s Instagram.


It's been thrilling to see our video gain momentum!” says Cherland. “We're a very small staff, so there's a definite sense of camaraderie and shared success with the video going viral. Keeping up with the media has been a bit of challenge, but it's such an exciting time that we're working hard to share our message as widely as possible.”

-- Brandon Denney, Program Fellow

FRN’s Nonprofit Partner Spotlight: Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission

This Hunger & Homelessness Awareness Week, FRN is sharing stories from the hunger-fighting nonprofit partners in our network. Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission serves hurting and homeless people in Seattle with recovery services. They provide summer camps for over 650 children throughout our community.

Here are some quotes from their White Center Summer Camp 2015. These are powerful reminders of hunger’s weight on kids, and also of kids’ amazing capacities for compassion.

Dario - Age 7:

“At summer camp, I love to go to recess and play. I play basketball. My favorite food is hamburgers and salad.”

Mickey - Age 8:

“I like the sandwiches here. At summer camp we go on field trips often. They are fun! We go to the zoo, the aquarium and the roller skating rink. I've had to go to school hungry lots of times. When I'm hungry I feel like I'm about to die. I'm starving to death. When my second grade teacher yelled at me I was grumpy and yelled back.

I saw the homeless on the street. I started crying because I didn't want him to die without food. My mom gave him some money.”

Isaiah - Didn't ask age:

“I like that at summer camp they treat everyone with respect and give everyone something to eat. Sometimes I've had to go to school hungry. My favorite food is pizza!”

Aileen - Didn't ask age:

“At summer camp we have fun. I love the sports time and I get exercise. The sandwich I ate a couple of minutes ago was good! My all-time favorite food is mangos and strawberries.

Every single night I stay up to 10 or 11pm. I'm hungry. When I have a small breakfast I get hungry again but I have no courage to tell my dad. Hungry feels like getting sick.”

Mahlet -Age 11:

“In the park she saw a homeless lady. Felt sad for her, it wasn't her fault. Had money and gave it to her. I felt better. I gave her my sandwich and fries.”

Liliana -Age 8:

When camping he went a whole day without eating. “I sometimes go to school without lunch. It made me feel sick. The food here is good! I like the taste. My favorite is the sandwiches. I'm a picky eater. I'll eat the ham and the mustard, then shove it all in my mouth.”

Jaden -Age 10:

“I like the meals here, they have lots of flavor. The best is one roast beef sandwich! My friend Jocelyn sometimes goes to school without lunch. And my friend Abby doesn't have breakfast.”

Thank you to Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission for their community service in combating hunger on a daily basis.

Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission works with Food Recovery Network of UW at University of Washington.