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A passion for feeding the world’s marginalized people

John Messer’s drive to help those in need is so intense and all-consuming that a few major logistical hurdles won’t stop him for a minute.

Consider that when he left his home in Falmouth in early April to help feed Ukrainian war refugees in a Polish border town, Messer had yet to land a volunteer position with World Central Kitchen, or any other organization. help. He didn’t even know where or how he would help once he landed after his 25 hour journey.

“When the war started, I felt like I needed to go, I needed to go, I needed to go,” Messer, 70, recalled during from a talk he recently gave to the World Affairs Council of Maine at the Falmouth Memorial Library. . “I bought a one-way ticket to Warsaw and thought, well, I’ll be fine. There is something for me to do.

He was hoping to volunteer for World Central Kitchen, the nonprofit group run by Washington DC star chef Jose Andres. Yarmouth chief Christian Hayes spent two weeks on the Ukrainian border in March helping the organization, paying his own expenses, as Messer and many other volunteers have done. But the day Messer flew to Poland, the group had no room for more helpers.

Once on the ground in the town of Przemysl, Poland, the same town where Hayes had worked, Messer connected with a World Central Kitchen manager and landed a volunteer position that had just opened up in their industrial kitchen. It was his preferred mode of service, cooking from scratch, rather than handing out cooked meals from food trucks or tents.

“There was a huge need for people who understood how a professional kitchen works, people with knife skills,” Messer said. “That job was my greatest value to them.”

If you want to make a LOT of banana bread… This is the recipe used by the World Central Kitchen to feed Ukrainian refugees after the Russians attacked their country. Photo courtesy of John Messer

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Originally a tax accountant, Messer worked in South Florida for 25 years as a partner in an international accounting and management consulting firm before retiring 10 years ago, determined to pursue his passions. He has spent the past 15 summers at his Down East camp, although he now lives in Maine full-time. For three consecutive years, he took six-week trips to Paris in order to graduate from the famous Parisian cooking school, Le Cordon Bleu, through its intensive program.

Messer is perhaps one of the few Le Cordon Bleu graduates to use his refined culinary skills exclusively to feed hungry people around the world, all for free. “I never made a dime working as a chef,” Messer said.

Since the 1990s, as an avid cook with no formal training, Messer has organized fundraisers across the country for the Texas-based orphan relief group Miracle Foundation, and he has visited India several times. to volunteer on foundation work projects. In the past five years alone, Messer has helped feed starving refugees in the Balkans, Greece and now Poland. A Maine resident after moving from Florida, he is also a board member of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, and in June he will be cooking for an event hosted by Hope Acts, the Portland-based nonprofit group dedicated to help immigrants and asylum seekers.

“Cooking supports people’s lives, and it’s very joyful for me. If people don’t have food, everything else is secondary,” Messer said, trying to explain what motivates him to volunteer. Regarding his two weeks in Ukraine, he said he was partly moved by “rage”.

“Going to help cook was just something I could do, rather than sitting at home being pissed off,” Messer said.

Volunteers feed Ukrainian refugees as part of the nonprofit World Central Kitchen Stop Making 5,000 Sandwiches. Photo courtesy of John Messer

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KNOWS THE FIGHT FIRST HAND

“He spends his days thinking about how to help the marginalized and trying to make their lives less difficult,” Messer’s husband Stephen Peck said. “That’s probably one of the things that drew me to him in the first place.”

“Everyone should be lucky enough to know a John Messer. He has (people in need) at the center of his heart with every decision he makes,” said Caroline Boudreaux, founder of Miracle Foundation, of which Messer is a board member. “People who have struggled understand struggle.”

Messer said he grew up in poverty in East Tennessee. “I was living on the fringes. I think it has something to do with my motivation. And I’m lucky to have the energy of a 20-year-old.

He certainly needed the energy for the 12-hour shifts at the World Central Kitchen, as well as commuting around town to sleep in a new room almost every night. In an email he sent to friends while in Ukraine, Messer wrote: ‘I’m so exhausted when I get to my apartment at night, I can barely get the beer to my mouth. before falling asleep. But every morning I wake up with all the energy in the world. I can’t remember such a sustained “high” in my life. I want to pinch myself. I’m here with about 100 foreigners, and suddenly everyone has become best friends, cooperating and working towards a common goal: to feed cold, traumatized displaced Ukrainians.

Messer worked in an empty warehouse that the association had transformed on the fly. “In four days, they transformed it into a state-of-the-art kitchen, with a walk-in freezer bigger than this room,” he told the dozen people gathered for his conference in a spacious meeting room. from the library.

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One of Messer’s first tasks with his work crew was to core and slice a ton of apples and make 5,000 sandwiches. “No matter where you go in the world, everyone loves a sandwich,” he said.

Volunteer extraordinaire John Messer stirs the pot, the really big pot. Photo courtesy of John Messer

BONDING EXPERIENCE

Messer showed photos he took of volunteers stirring stew in 8ft by 3ft paella pans with long paddles, pureeing cooked fruit for baby food with waist-high immersion blenders weeders and making a banana bread recipe that starts with 1,000 bananas and 390 eggs.

“It was such a bonding experience,” acknowledged Lucy Woodward, a professional musician living in Holland who volunteered for World Central Kitchen while Messer was there. “I am not a cook. And they put me side by side with John chopping vegetables for borscht. He had this unwavering way of chopping everything very precisely, all the same size. To see him working on something he loves, he’s very focused and composed. And everyone was like, ‘Just follow John.’ He was such a comfort and mentor to me.

Another World Central Kitchen volunteer, Rachel Vaughn, a private chef from Montana, said she also bonded with Messer outside of the kitchen. He helped her find a place in town to donate the charity funds she had raised before she flew to Poland.

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“It’s hard to put into words the connection you feel with these people,” she said. “John is so warm and funny, and he brought so much humor into the kitchen. I made a very close friend in him.

Messer said he had worked in volunteer kitchens overseas where “it was horrible how dangerous the practices were”. He had seen food that would be served the next day left at room temperature overnight for lack of refrigeration.

This was not the case with World Central Kitchen. “You were a volunteer, but you were treated like an employee,” he said of the kitchen he worked in, where Marc Murphy, a New York chef and judge on the cooking competition show “Chopped”, was a chef. “You were expected to be always on time, never leave early. It was a tight ship. I had never worked in such a professional kitchen.

“We were very proud of the food. Nothing was ever mixed up,” Messer continued. “It was important to us that it looked good when people ate it. It was our way of saying, I love you.

Messer speaks about his experience volunteering with the World Central Kitchen to a crowd at the Falmouth Memorial Library. Gregory Rec / Personal Photographer

WILL RETURN IF NEEDED

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Messer also said that in other refugee camps where he cooks, the food is not always culturally sensitive. “So 33% of it gets thrown away. The food here was culturally sensitive. to please the palates of the region.

With a photo of a bowl of lemon and egg zurek on display in Falmouth Library, Messer’s eyes widened and his voice dropped in reverence as he told the audience, “The food was delicious. . The bread pudding alone was so good, it was like your bubbie’s bread pudding.

Chef Christian Hayes spent the last days of his trip to Ukraine in quarantine for a COVID infection, but said he would gladly return to help the World Central Kitchen if the opportunity arose.

“I would go back in a heartbeat, immediately,” he said. “I think about it all the time.”

Messer understands the strong attraction. He said he would return to Ukraine for more volunteer work this summer if the war continues and the need remains, although he would prefer, for the good of Ukrainians, that both conditions had changed by then. “I hope I don’t get the chance to go back,” he said.

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Rodney N.

The author Rodney N.