Throughout the course of my mere 30 year existence on this planet, I have had the privilege of meeting and connecting with some incredible folks who are doing beautiful things to help make this planet a better place for all. Jon Dengler is no exception. Jon wears many hats: He’s a chef, an artist, a handyman, an entrepreneur, a community leader, and a good friend of mine.
Among other hats, Jon is also a survivor. When he was 17, Dengler survived a major car collision which nearly took his life. A couple years later, Jon encountered Jesus through an LSD trip he had with friends. This magical encounter led to a transformative life re-direction, which eventually led him to connecting with the houseless on the streets, and eventually founding what we now know as The Well.
Today, Jon is the founder, and Executive Director of The Well, a Tampa-based organization and movement of people committed to living in direct relationships with the poor. The work that The Well is doing is encompassing, and involves the intersections of social enterprise, community empowerment, and food justice.
The Well’s origins are faith-based, and inspired by the teachings and examples of the life that Jesus lived; a life that centered on loving the poor, feeding the hungry, and giving voices to the voiceless. The Well movement facilitates meal sites, hosts a monthly open mic. night (known as The Conscious Party), operates a bicycle shop social enterprise (known as Wellbuilt Bikes), among other amazing things. This is truly an organization that works diligently to put their faith in action. Everyone is welcomed to have a seat at their dinner table.
I have worked on and off with Jon throughout the years, and wanted to reconnect with him, to learn more about his life, and what he has been doing with The Well. In this edition of Farm to Spork, I am proud to feature my good friend, and introduce you to this fabulous organization, known as the The Well. The following is an interview that I had with Jon Dengler back in late August of 2019. Please note that this transcript of our interview has been lightly annotated and edited, for clarification purposes.
[The Funky Spork] What is The Well?
[Jon Dengler] The Well is a Community of people that are trying our best to try to walk in relationship with folk, who are often in material need. Over time, we became a 501c3 organization. That community is making up excuses to build bridges between folks who have and need resources. Sometimes we build tables, and sometimes we build bike shops for the excuse of bringing people together across racial and socioeconomic lines. In these tables we sit together, and listen to one another’s stories, and hopefully form relationships.
We do stuff with food, gardens, and bikes, and open miss. We use different excuses to bring people together.
[The Funky Spork] It definitely sounds like The Well is a movement, and not just a place. A place you put yourself what and wherever the needs are.
[Jon Dengler] Yes. We did have a place at one point, which did cause an identity crisis. The Well, that was a community, that was clear to us, rented out a space to do our work. For many, the physical location, rather than our social movement, became regarded as The Well. As the neighborhood our headquarters was located in began to gentrify and experience a demographic change, we got pushed out of our building, and therefore had to leave. Because of this, many thought that The Well had come to an End.
The eviction from our physical location resulted in us forcing ourselves how to adapt and continue to bring the services of The Well to the community. For example, our free pantry, which previously ran in in the previous location eventually became a mobile market, which we now call The Kinship Market. The Kinship Market now goes out to neighborhoods and other areas around Tampa which are either considered as food deserts or have a lot of people experiencing food insecurity. The Kinship Market gives us the opportunity to bring food to families-food which might have otherwise gone to waste.
[The Funky Spork] What geographic areas do you serve? I understand that a lot of the work you do has been focused in Tampa. But do the services of The Well reach any other part of the Tampa Bay area?
[Jon Dengler] It is all in Tampa right now. Our services are focused on familiar neighborhoods and areas we already know. For example, through The Kinship Market, we serve dinners at locations, such as The Good Samaritan Inn, the Sulfur Springs neighborhood, the University Area (dubbed ‘Suitcase City’), and here at Waters Avenue Church. I am currently in talks about bringing services of The Kinship to St. Pete.
The beauty of The Kinship is that it is a community-driven movement. If there is a group, such as a church or other organization with a group of members who are interested in volunteering with us on a consistent basis, we can connect them to one of our meal site locations, where the volunteers can eventually form meaningful relationships with the people that they are serving.
[The Funky Spork] What inspired you to launch The Well?
[Jon Dengler] When I became a Christian, I began to read The Bible and take it seriously. But I never went to church, for years. And then eventually, I did and hated it. I found that my experiences going to church had nothing to do with the Jesus I’ve been reading about in the scriptures, besides hearing his name in the worship songs. I didn’t get it, and thought that something was probably wrong with me. Once I heard about the church’s $6 million capital campaign, I became disinterested, and left that church.
I eventually heard about a church that was sharing food with the homeless. Their outreach resonated with me, and I became interested in volunteering. The name of the church was Bethel. One Florida winter night, I joined other volunteers, and hoped in the church van in order to pass out blankets and food to the homeless around downtown Tampa. That night, I remember walking down a dark alley, which smelled of strong urine. While there, I connected with a man, squatted next to him, passed him a blanket and warm food, and awkwardly asked him to share his story with me. I remember strongly resonating with him and his story.
Later that night, after volunteering, I remember going back home, and lying in bed with my warm blanket, and pillow. All night, I kept thinking about how people often do this type of outreach and became perplexed about the fact that people often do this type of outreach and feel good, afterwards. I was not feeling good, and was feeling like crap. I remember thinking about the fact that I had clothes in my closet, a car in the driveway, a roof over my head, running water that heats up, a refrigerator with food in it. I kept thinking about the fact that I had access to all this stuff, while this brother that I just connected with was sleeping in that alley, and was probably sleeping in his own urine, hoping that someone comes by with some food.
That night began a haunting. It was that cold night that really pointed to the beginning. It was that night that made me realize that I cannot continue living in a world that works this way. So if I’m not going to kill myself, I’m going to kill myself trying to change it. I’m not really sure if I have made a difference, but I know that it’s made a difference to me.
[The Funky Spork] The Well has a food pantry and a garden. How do you see The Well fitting within the overall food systems process?
[Jon Dengler] In North America, we waste a tremendous amount. Over 40 percent of food produced is winding up in the garbage. This may be because of buffet lines, expiration dates, and a bunch of other reasons. Part of what we are trying to do is capture perfectly good food from the waste stream, save it from landfills, and bring it to people who might often go without food.
I will tell you that in the United States, nobody is really starving. There is food to be had. People, on the other hand, might be malnourished, with limitations to unhealthy, processed junk foods. What we are trying to do is bring healthy food to those in need. While we know we are not solving world hunger, we know that we are building relationships through our time serving food.
As far as our gardens are concerned, we are inviting people into the production of food. Someone may be without work or food, and we can help empower them by providing them with a space to grow their own food.
Not only do I love food, but food is one of our most intimate connections with Creation, with the planet. It is something that we all depend on. Food is sacred. Food is so central to existence and relationships. We bond over a shared meal, we connect with the Earth over a shared meal, and we encounter God over food. I really want to invite people into the production of food, the preparation of food, the harvesting of food.
Ultimately, I believe in building bridges in unity and connections, because I think that poverty grows out of relationships that they should. We have houses that are empty, and people without houses. Food that goes wasted, and people without food. The relational healing that is needed is access to one another. I believe that that happens with relationship, and relationship happens around the table. This is why I use the image of the table, even if we are just turning wrenches around a bike. For me, it’s common tables that we want to set.
[The Funky Spork] Has your view of food changed at all, since establishing The Well?
[Jon Dengler] My view of food has changed dramatically. Back in the day, my now fiancé and I did an experiment. We did a 40-day fast, where we only ate food that was sourced within a 100-mile radius of us. We didn’t even consume oils, such as olive oil, and only consumed salt later on into the fast. Our bodies eventually became so physically deprived of salt, we went out into the Gulf of Mexico to obtain a few buckets of seawater, and laid them out in flat pans above my roof, until all of the water was evaporated, and sea salt remained (something that I don’t recommend!).
The experience of the fast deeply affected me, for the first reason being that we even did the fast in the first place. The experience also made us realize how little locally-sourced food there was readily available around us. For instance, I found that since the Gulf of Mexico encompassed a large portion of the 100-mile radius of Tampa, I spent a lot of time fishing out on the gulf. One of the reasons this fast had deeply affected me was because I realized that if we didn’t have systems that were bringing in food, the cost of a tomato would be bloodshed, and I want to do something about that. And I want to do something about that with gardens, I want to do something about that with community-building and development. We have got to do something to work on food security, collectively.
[The Funky Spork] What’s next for The Well?
[Jon Dengler] There’s a lot that we want to do! Our vision statement is for us is ‘To see needs met, bridges built, and a city made whole’. We especially want to build as many bridges as we can. We want to use as many excuses as we can to do so. We have a lot of ideas on how we can do that, including our current social enterprise initiative, known as Wellbuilt Bikes. Wellbuilt Bikes has been a powerful lesson for us to deepen our conviction around social enterprise, and leveraging business for the sake of our aims. Wellbuilt Bikes has been a powerful lesson for sustainability and impact purposes. So we want to iterate on all of that by focusing on food.
Stay tuned. As we aim toward developing a well-built city, you will see lots of initiatives beginning. We want to get our hands in a lot more places. We believe we can use our movement to address needs around food, housing, clothing, and transportation. We also believe that we can develop sustainable opportunities for folks to earn income, as well. And we are going to work like hell on that. We would like to invite everyone to contribute to our vision of a well-built city.