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Feeding Many People On A Shoestring

Shelter Chefs Must React Quickly To Unexpected Donations Of Ingredients


September 30, 2010

Home cooks, especially if they are cooking for a family, often follow a game plan for mealtime. The highly organized cook checks the weekly supermarket sales and figures out a series of menus before writing a shopping list. The process saves time and money and heads off any impulse buying.

If only the planning could be as easy in shelter kitchens, where every penny and every morsel of food is precious. Bound by strict budget and dependent on donations, both monetary and actual food, shelter chefs often can't plan meals too far ahead.

"Every day, I feel like I have to be the Iron Chef because you don't know what's coming in," says Sebastian Kolodziej, the chef at House of Bread in Hartford. "Years ago, I used recipes. Now I wing it."

Just as Iron Chefs must react quickly to the unveiling of the mystery ingredient, shelter cooks find that flexibility is a major ingredient in their cooking.

"When I look in the refrigerator in the morning, I say, 'I'm going to go down this road'," says chef Paul Byron at the Bridgeport Rescue Mission. "But then someone calls and says, 'I have 14 cases of x, y and z,' and I say, 'I'm going to change direction and use it.'"

Recently, Byron was preparing roasted chicken with rosemary and au gratin potatoes, using donated spuds, for the evening's meal when a truck from a local farm arrived with seven cases of fresh green beans. He immediately redirected staff to wash, trim and cook the beans for that night's meal to take advantage of their freshness. "I don't turn food away," he says.

When the staff knows that hundreds of hungry folks will line up for meals every day, cases of vegetables or meats seem far more valuable even than hard cash. Relying on donations presents its own pitfalls, however. Kolodziej used to receive 600 to 900 pounds of fresh food twice a week from a local vending company. When the company shut its doors, "it was very difficult for us," he says until another company offered donated goods.

"One door may close, but something else opens up, like Trader Joe's." The West Hartford chain grocery store sends meats, produce and salads daily to the House of Bread.

"We're very grateful for that occurrence every day," Kolodziej says. "When I first came here, everything was canned. Now, we have the availability of more fresh vegetables and meat."

Fresh Produce From Shelter's Own Vegetable Garden

The staff at the Stewart B. McKinney Shelter in Hartford found another way to supply fresh produce to its kitchen. Two years ago, volunteers, staff and the homeless who sleep at the former firehouse built a series of raised beds and planted a vegetable garden. The ongoing harvest includes herbs, corn, green beans, tomatoes, eggplant and pigeon peas. Thanks to the garden and gardeners, dishes such as tomato, cucumber and basil salad turn up on the menu. The close access to this fresh produce means that McKinney director Jose Vega, who is now filling in for the shelter's main cook, can serve tomato, cucumber and basil salad with the lunch entrée.

"We don't get enough from the garden to freeze for the winter," says Vega, who has temporarily taken over managing the kitchen, "but we use everything fresh."

Meals at the shelters tend to be hearty "comfort" dishes and always include a vegetable, bread and dessert. The kitchen chefs recognize the need to provide their guests, whose only meal may be at the shelter, with quality calories in "comfort food" form. Among the most popular dishes at the state's shelters are homemade macaroni and cheese, beef stew, pasta with meat sauce, rice and beans, baked chicken and meatloaf. The big difference between the shelter meals of today and those of 10 or more years ago is the freshness factor. Most of the dishes emanating from shelter kitchens are made from scratch, not reheated from a can, the chefs say.

The Need Keeps Growing

While feeding hundreds of hungry folks on limited funds always has been a daunting job, budgets are stretched even thinner in these uncertain economic times.

At the Community Dining Room in Branford, the number of participants in a program begun last year "quadrupled in six months and continues to grow, serving 100 families and over 150 individuals," says executive director Patricia Kral. Wednesday Night Take-Out, a to-go dinner program, targets persons who have lost their jobs or are working fewer hours. Serving about 3,500 meals a month, the carry-out program is meant to help struggling workers stretch their food dollar.

The Bridgeport Rescue Mission, which provides about 50,000 meals a month to the needy, has doubled its budget in the past four years. "The need has more than doubled," says director of development Linda Casey. "We have been able to meet the budget, but that doesn't mean it's been easy."

House of Bread was feeding about 125 clients at lunch when Kolodziej took over the kitchen in 1998. Now, he considers 250 guests an average seating. "Obviously, the need is considerably more," he says.

Some shelters receive state, federal or city funding, while others such as the Bridgeport Rescue Mission raise all of their money through grants and private donations. Tangible donations such as food and supplies help to stretch those dollars.

"There have been a couple of months when I've done meals for 35 cents a person," says Bridgeport's Byron. "My budget can't be relied on. It's not enough without the help from the people, corporations and churches. I wouldn't be able to produce what I produce without help from the people."

At McKinney shelter in Hartford, the kitchen serves in a month 3,000 dinners, 300 hot lunches and 3,000 breakfasts on a budget of $2,500. Achieving that kind of balancing act requires more than creative meal planning.

"We do miracles," Vega says of his staff and the homeless men who sleep at the shelter and volunteer to help in the kitchen.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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