When I found out I had breast cancer in September I made a beeline from the hospital to get some Mitchell’s ice cream. I needed to feel alive and cared for and the chocolate cone was as sweet as it was filling and calming—just enough to get me through the shock. Now that I’m three weeks into the diagnosis and have started chemo treatments, I remain comfortable talking about food over the nitty gritty of what it’s like to actually have cancer. Why make everyone feel as tired as I do? It’s so much easier to talk baked goods, or chicken soup with crusty bread—topics that will always be near and dear to my heart...or belly, as it were. Friends have said, “let me know what I can do” when they find out this bit of bad news. Then a friend offered: “let me know if you want me to set up a Meal Train, for people to bring you food.” That got my attention.
Meal Train is a sizable online entity that serves folks with challenging medical, life or financial circumstances: from newborn babies to cancer, deployment or natural disaster—-basically the sort of surprise “oh shit” moments where folks quickly find they could lean on others. Meal Train gifts me food from friends—a diverse group of carnivores, vegetarians and everything in between. I pick the dates and times and detail desired dishes. So far that's meant goodies that definitely helps me feel less weak: beef stew, roasted chicken, lentil veggie daal and black bean soup with mini corn muffins—-even stuffed crust pizza from the award winning Zachary’s.
Turning to Meal Train is a first, and meals are something I definitely anticipate. Given my food background, I do miss shopping, prepping, cooking and the spiritual sustenance it provides. But it’s tough to walk even a few blocks, and I realized I need to accept my changing health status and take it easy until things improve. Using this setup helps my friends as well--my friend Judy told me that "it's a blessing because we can sign up and feel like we're doing something to help you." The feeling that I am a part of a community has really deepened and I feel both helped and, cheesy as it may sound, loved by many.
I got in touch with Meal Train co-founder Michael Laramee to find out more about the service and how it works. His comments have been edited for clarity.
Meal Train is easy to use and takes the discomfort out of asking for help. What are the ideals behind Meal Train?
Laramee: We strive to simplify and promote interpersonal relationships between friends, families, and neighbors through meals. The concept of a meal train is rooted in the idea that the meal is symbolic of the willingness to help a friend. The meal is the vehicle that allows the giving party the opportunity to show they care and this outreach is a true interpersonal connection. A "showing up" that helps foster interdependence, dialogue, and compassion. Unlike communities created by social media tools, Meal Train creates and strengthens physical communities, enabling giving by reducing the information gap between those in need and those with the capacity to help.
You started Meal Train with your wife as a way to coordinate meals for a neighbor who had a newborn baby. How does the technology work?
Laramee: If you have ever organized a group event, you know the potential headaches. First you send an email announcement and then try to make sense of the confusing email replies, reply-alls, double-date booking, phone calls, cancellations, meal questions and voicemail messages. With Meal Train, you eliminate confusion by creating a shared calendar and answering questions in advance like: What do they like? When are they available? What have they already had? Meal Train includes: a real-time meal calendar; the ability to customize dates, times, and meal preferences; invitations via email and Facebook; with reminder emails so no one forgets. These benefits ensure that everyone has the necessary information so they can focus on supporting friends with meals.
The numbers of users is staggering: over 1,300,000 meals for 130,000 families around the world.
Laramee: Recently we heard from a family of six who had to take a child for medical care to a facility five hours away and would be there for two months. This left just one parent and three children at home trying to manage all of the challenges of daily life while being preoccupied with the well-being of their missing family members. One neighbor noticed that this family might benefit from a Meal Train and set it up, invited friends and neighbors and within hours, over 60 meals scheduled to be made and delivered by friends. It is amazing to hear and to know that on any given night, over 2500 people are cooking and delivering a meal for a friend.
Can you share some Meal Train insights?
Laramee: First of all, it is completely free to use the site. We put no limits on organizing a classic meal train. Also, being that this is a new spin on an old concept, many people are looking for a little more guidance. For that reason, we have an etiquette section on the site which includes a few basic guidelines like:
- When dropping off a meal, plan not to stay more than 10-15 minutes. This will obviously depend on your existing relationship, but it is safer to expect that the meal recipient is not ready to entertain yet.
- Arrive at the requested time.
- Make enough for leftovers. Freezable meals are also nice.
- Don't forget the extras: drinks, condiments, salad dressing, and dessert.