The following article was written by Jessica Belasco and published on mysanantonio.com
Photo by Jennifer Whitney/Special to the Express-News.
Come nightfall on Tuesdays, the hungry begin waiting for Chef Joan to arrive.
Some haven’t eaten all day. Others have dined on nothing but fast food or canned food since last week.
When Joan Cheever, founder of the Chow Train, drives up, they’re gathered on sidewalks or parking lots, wanting to know what’s for dinner.
On the menu this chilly evening in early March is green chicken enchiladas, grilled chicken breast sandwiches with caramelized onions and smoked paprika aioli, roasted Brussels sprouts with bacon, marinated zucchini and beet salad.
“God bless you,” Danny de la Garza says as he accepts a heaping plate, which costs him nothing because he has nothing to give.
Like many of the people Cheever will feed tonight, de la Garza is homeless.
Feeding restaurant-quality meals to the hungry is the goal of the Chow Train, a nonprofit food truck.
“I’d like nothing better than to have no business,” says Cheever, 54. “But as long as I do, they’re going to get fed, and they’re going to get fed a three-course meal.”
Cheever and several volunteers deliver food on Tuesday nights at several locations — off Austin Highway, off Broadway and downtown on South Alamo Street — with Brian Wicks of Resurrection Ministries. She also serves lunch about once a month with Under the Bridge Inc. downtown at Austin and Ninth streets and some Mondays at Catholic Worker House on the East Side.
The food is fresh and nutritious, heavy on the vegetables.
Dr. Chris Plauche, a member of the board of directors of Catholic Worker House, says Cheever prepares healthful meals for a diverse population.
“She is so attentive to all of our guests who are homeless, to their different diets, like those with diabetes, those who are vegan, those who are vegetarian,” Plauche says. “She fixes the healthiest meals, instead of a lot of the meals that we tend to provide that are quick and easy and full of sugar and salt.”
Cheever is a journalist and attorney with a strong interest in social justice. An opponent of the death penalty, she authored a book about men who got off death row.
Her passion for helping the needy came from her mother, Sally, who was “always taking care of people less fortunate, was always bringing food to people or slipping them some money,” she recalls.
She passed her mother’s lessons on to her own children, now 18 and 20, when they were younger.
“When I started to hear the whining, ‘I want, I want, I want,’ I always put on a pot of spaghetti sauce or chili or whatever and put them in the car, and we’d drive around to feed people,” she says.
Later, Cheever decided she wanted to feed people on a larger scale. An enthusiastic cook, she enrolled in classes at St. Philip’s College a few years ago “to be taken seriously and not injure anybody,” she says. “It was important to learn as much as I could about food and how to do healthy food and how to be creative.”
She’s on track to graduate in May with an associate’s degree in culinary arts.
Cheever had a taste of what it was like to be homeless last Easter, when she lived on the street for three days in Austin as part of a “street retreat” organized by Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a ministry that feeds people who are homeless.
“I learned a hot meal is really, really important,” she says.
She started the food truck last year. The first stop after the Chow Train was inspected and licensed by the city’s health department in May was Joplin, Mo., where a massive tornado had ripped through the town just days before. Survivors, volunteers and law enforcement ate from the truck.
During the Bastrop County wildfires in September, the Chow Train fed firefighters, residents and volunteers in Smithville.
The truck also supplied food to volunteers building a house in Floresville for a wounded warrior in January as part of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.”
Sometimes Cheever parks the truck at public events, such as Síclovía, and distributes food in exchange for donations.
Because the 14-foot trailer is unwieldy, on Tuesday nights, Cheever distributes food cooked in the truck from the back of her Honda SUV.
About half the people the Chow Train feeds on a regular basis are homeless, like Stephen Haskell.
“Chef Joan is off the hook,” Haskell says. “She’s the only one who’s ever been able to get me to eat beets and like them.”
Others have homes but can’t afford food, like James, who washes dishes at a River Walk restaurant and lives in a motel.
“The food is fresh,” James says of the Chow Train. “I’ve been at different feedings. It wasn’t fresh.”
Cheever says she has a mobile food vending permit, but not the special permit required to operate a mobile food establishment in the downtown central business district.
That doesn’t stop Cheever, who wears an apron reading, “I Feed the Hungry/Arrest Me!”
Mary Powers, a volunteer with the Catholic Worker House who has worked with Cheever, praises her dedication.
“She’s a ball of fire,” Powers says. “She has amazing energy. She’s an excellent cook, organizer and motivator for the volunteers and the people living on the street. She’s a fabulous voice for all of them.”