Food Means Community: A Reflection on the Buffet of Savory Lessons From Service

Kelli Kikumoto speaking at the 2024 Center for Community Engagement missioning ceremony.

June 03, 2024
Kellie Kikumoto (’17)

Each year, Gonzaga’s Center for Community Engagement (CCE) hosts a missioning ceremony for graduates entering a year of service through agencies such as Jesuit Volunteer Corps, AmeriCorps and Peace Corps. And each year, the ceremony features a past graduate who shares about their experience and lessons. This year, Kellie Kikumoto (’17) returned to encourage new grads with fond memories from her time in Ecuador with Rostro de Cristo and later back at GU with CCE.

For as long as I can remember, food has always been at the core of my identity. I think the first thing I ate as a kid was a spam musubi. Every gathering growing up was potluck style. Counters always overflowing in color and texture, and warmth, spanning a multitude of cultures. Food has connected me to my family, it’s always been a way to honor my ancestors, a way to learn the stories of those who have come before me. It has been at the center of every celebration and of every heartache.

The first lesson food taught me was joy. When I was 4 years old, Mom and I would dance in the kitchen to old Hawaiian music or Motown. My feet on hers, we’d glide across the floor. Only pausing to stir the Japanese curry on the stove, or to knead the homemade biscuits, or to marinate the fresh ahi tuna that my uncle caught that morning. On those red dirt stained tile floors I learned that food means joy. Food means singing, it means messy hands, scattered ingredients, and a happy mom.

The second lesson food taught me in the sharing of meals. Mom and I would come up with menus together. We picked the bowling pin sized avocados from our backyard. We had mangoes from Grammy’s tree, fresh fish from the neighbor across the street. The land around us so graciously provided more than we needed. We’d leave plates and containers of food filled to the brim on porches, outside front and back doors, in mailboxes and garage refrigerators. It was our way of showing the people in our lives how much we cared about them. Food means I love you and I’m thinking of you.

As I grew older, food continued to bring me comfort. Cooking rice in my tiny rice cooker, in my tiny dorm room. Whipping up anything that made me feel close to home even when I was over 2,000 miles away. I would invite the Tuesday Logan Elementary School Campus Kids mentors over for monthly dinners. Clanging around pots and pans that never really got cleaned in the communal kitchen. The mentors would sit around the table and wait patiently… and awkwardly. And then I’d bring out whatever I had spent too many hours making and it was like an immediate switch. The quiet turned into low rumbles of conversation and laughter. Recounting all the absurd and wild things the kids said during programming. Food means connection. Food means that strangers can quickly turn into friends.

The decision to participate in post-grad service was a no brainer for me. I had always dreamed of doing so and when I stumbled upon Rostro de Cristo, a program that was centered on accompaniment and presence, it was clear that everything that I had experienced at Gonzaga brought me to this moment. I was called to spend the year following graduation, in Monte Sinaí, a small neighborhood two hours outside of Guayaquil, Ecuador.

As you can imagine, the year was full of growth. And many of the lessons I learned while in Ecuador were laced into the preparation and sharing of food with neighbors. A few of these lessons were nothing short of humbling. On my first full day in Monte Sinaí, I quickly learned that it is respectful to accept what is given to you. Carolina from the tienda across the street offered me chicken. “Chicken.” I eagerly nodded and smiled and put that thing straight into my mouth. Laughter immediately ensued from the bellies of all the neighbors who said it was cuy (guinea pig). I learned afterwards that cuy is a delicacy in Ecuador, so really it was an honor. Food means being a good sport. Food means taking friendly initiation like a champ.

I also learned, on rare occasions, that food didn’t always bring joy and connection. That it sometimes brings sickness and nights spent hugging a toilet because different places around the world have different bacteria that not every stomach is used to. The neighborhood kids referred to me as the girl with dos cascadas, two waterfalls, because I was often sick from both ends. Here, food is a reminder that we are not all blessed with stomachs of steel.

There were things that I learned living in Ecuador that were so profound that they’ve now become the thread of my being. It didn’t take long for me to realize that food could say all the things I wished I could, as I stumbled through a new language. I spent afternoons cutting up fresh produce with my neighbor Bélgica. We didn’t say much, but she remained patient and gave me encouraging giggles along the way. I admired her as she threw ingredients into a pot, tasting it as she went, adding seasonings and a whole lot of love to feed her family. Food means that sometimes words aren’t needed. Food means presence is more than enough.

Most weekends, I walked down our dusty street, sweating from places I didn’t know could sweat, dirt instantly sticking to the moisture of any exposed skin. Don Raúl and his daughter Rosario would yell from their cane home. “Ven! Pase no mas. Pase no mas!” Come and nothing more. Come and nothing more. A simple statement but what a great act of love. An invitation into their home. To be only my truest self. And with so much gratitude, I learned to say yes to those invitations. I removed my shoes at the door both literally and figuratively, I sat at their wobbly table. We shared a plate of arroz con pollo and freshly popped popcorn. They spoke about their life and experiences and their families. Food means radical acceptance. Food means that we may come from different places, but I see you, I hear you, and I want nothing more than to share this moment with you.

As my 14 months living in Ecuador wrapped up, I had spent a lot of time discerning what came next. Completely overwhelmed by the thought of entering the job force, after one of the most challenging and rewarding years of my life, I decided that another year of post-grad service would be a transition I could welcome. I was lucky enough to spend my second year of service with Americorps here at Gonzaga in the Center for Community Engagement. I was so excited to come back to a place that had already shaped so much of who I was.

And though I had spent most of my time as a student in our youth mentoring programs, I was offered a position working in Campus Kitchens. I was incredibly nervous because it was the one program that I hadn’t spent much time in. But I found deep comfort in knowing that this program focused primarily on- you guessed it – food. It’s built upon the belief that everyone deserves food security and that we can find sustainable ways to recover and create well rounded meals. This program allowed me to carry forward all of the gifts food has brought me with the greater Spokane community.

Emily (Banick) and I spent a lot of time dreaming up what is known as the Logan Family Meal. And to this day it is one of the most special things I’ve ever been a part of and have been able to witness. College students, faculty, staff, community members, elementary school students and their families all in one space, enjoying a meal that consisted of fresh ingredients from our campus garden, perfectly good leftover food from our dining halls and a little extra love from the grocery store to top it all off. Wally from the retirement home always came ready to enthusiastically bus tables and serve dinner plates. Bruce, an unhoused neighbor, sat with a new family each week. Makaiah, the 10-month-old sibling of a Logan student, sat snug on my hip each Tuesday as I made my way around to every table. And Joe Johnston from the sociology department sat with kids from the Walking School Bus.

Food means community. Food means connecting across generations, cultures, experiences. Food means delighting in one another’s company.

For Zags entering a year of post-grad service

I will close our time together with some words of encouragement. To the family and friends in this room: I know it may be exciting and a little bit nerve-wracking seeing your loved one begin this new journey, may you always hold on to the fact that they will carry your love with them wherever they go.

And to the graduates in this room, as each of you begin your post-graduate service year, may you enter every space with the intention to listen, to learn, and to love deeply. May you lean into the messiness of it all, may you ask questions and always challenge injustice. May you find peace in the uncertainty, may you treat everyone with respect and curiosity. May your understanding and care for this world and its people deepen. May you always be moved by the work you’re doing, may you focus less on numbers and meeting goals and benchmarks and more on accompaniment and building relationships.

I hope you have many opportunities to share a meal with the people you will meet. And whether or not there is food involved, may you always pull up a chair at the table, invite someone to sit with you, and find hope in your common humanity.

Thank you and congratulations!

2024 Appointees in Post-Grad Service

The 2024 Gonzaga appointees in post-grad service at the CCE missioning ceremony.

  • Julia Boyle – AmeriCorps, Spokane
  • James Coleman – Jesuit Volunteer Corps, Boston
  • Kate Gardner – Jesuit Volunteer Corps, Portland, Maine
  • Andrea Gutierrez – Alumni Service Corps, Seattle
  • Lainey Klein – AmeriCorps, Spokane
  • Ronan Kramer – Jesuit Volunteer Corps, San Diego
  • Brendan McKeegan – Alliance for Catholic Education – Santa Ana, California
  • Max Reyes – Peace Corps, Philippines
  • Amber Sety – Fellowship of Catholic University Students
  • William Taylor – Jesuit Volunteer Corps, Denver
Learn More About Gonzaga's Center for Community Engagement