Her children were far from spoiled, but they did whine about leftovers and refused to eat them. So one evening 11 years ago, Joan M. Cheever decided to teach Daley, 13, and Austin, 10, a lesson. She made a big batch of spaghetti and chili, loaded it into the back of her SUV, and drove the kids around their hometown of San Antonio, TX, searching out the homeless. “I wanted them to meet people who really had something to complain about—but didn’t,” she says.
Food for the Soul
Joan began accompanying a minister as he visited homeless encampments throughout the city, distributing hot, healthy meals she had prepared at home. “The faces of hunger are not what you’d expect,” she says. “Some people had been laid off from a good job, and before they knew it had fallen so far down that they couldn’t get back up.”
A legal affairs journalist, Joan was soon devoting all her time to charity. She enrolled in the culinary arts program at St. Philip’s College, attending 8 a.m. classes several times a week. “I am definitely not a morning person,” she says. “It was harder than law school.” Joan founded the nonprofit Chow Train in 2011, tapping her social network of soccer moms, high school buddies and fellow board members of the San Antonio Public Library Foundation to raise $50,000 for a kitchen trailer and pickup truck. “Some people write me a check just to shut me up,” she says.
No sooner had she bought the trailer than a tornado tore through Joplin, MO, killing 161 people. Joan sprang into action, asking friends and relatives for donations to buy food and making the 600-mile drive to the ravaged city, where she served breakfast, lunch and dinner to survivors and first responders. She’s since traveled to LaPlace, LA, in the wake of Hurricane Isaac and to Brooklyn after Superstorm Sandy.
These days the Chow Train makes five stops in San Antonio every Tuesday. Local stores donate meat and bread, and area farms supply fresh fruits and veggies. The meals are three-course affairs—soup, entrées like honey-ginger BBQ chicken and maybe Key lime pie for dessert. When Joan pulls up at events like the San Antonio Book Festival, shoppers can dig in as well. “I ask them to pay what they feel the meal is worth, maybe a little more,” she says. “I rely on their goodwill.” The 57-year- old also relies on husband Dennis Quinn, her BFFs and their spouses, and even her hairdresser to help cook and serve.
But not everyone is happy about Joan’s efforts. In April, local police cited her for delivering her food without a permit. Joan, who cooked the meals in a commercial kitchen that she says had the proper permit, plans to fight her potential $2,000 fine in court.
Joan’s kids, who rolled their eyes during that first drive in 2004, have come to share their mom’s vision. Austin, now 21, was by her side after a tornado ravaged Moore, OK, in 2013. On a recent visit home from New York City, Daley, 23, accompanied Joan and three young cousins on a food run, answering their questions about the homeless. “People tell me, ‘I don’t know where you find them, because I never see them,’ ” Joan says. “My response? Get on the Chow Train, and I’ll show you.”