Early this year, I found myself in a new city, transitioning between jobs and with quite a bit of extra time on my hands. After several dreary winter afternoons spent lounging on the sofa, watching sitcom re-re-re-runs, I decided that the time had come to look for a volunteer opportunity. After a few days of skimming through local newspapers and newsletters, I finally got lucky with Volunteer Match. Within minutes, I found the Campus Kitchen Project, a mere 20 minute walk from my home. Since the first week of February, I have been spending 2-3 hours a week volunteering there and it is the most rewarding thing I have done in a long time.
What is the Campus Kitchen project? Their mission is simple...
(a) Collect good, nutritious food that may otherwise be wasted. Our campus kitchen (CK) gets prepared food from the campus cafeterias and restaurants and unsold produce, bread etc. from stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, to name some sources. At the end of every semester, students donate food that they would otherwise throw out before they go home for the summer/ winter break: before summer break, CK collected a thousand lbs of granola bars, fruit cups, canned soup, cereal and other student staples!
(b) CK has a full-size fully equipped professional kitchen donated by the university (this is the "campus" part of campus kitchens...they are mostly located in colleges and universities). In this kitchen, all the donated food is converted into delicious, nutritious and well-balanced meals that are neatly packaged in an appetizing way. There is only one employee (the coordinator), everyone else who works here is a volunteer.
(c) The prepared meals are delivered by volunteers to citizens in the surrounding neighborhoods who are in need. In this way, a ton of perfectly good and edible food is saved from being tossed in the garbage, and at the same time, we are fighting hunger in the community.
I confess that I am one of those people who claim to be "hungry" or "starving" every few hours, without ever knowing the true meaning of those words. Real hunger is painful and horrifying, it stamps out human dignity. When people think of hunger, they sometimes think that it is restricted to war-torn regions of Africa and sprawling slums in Asia. The fact is, hunger exists everywhere in the world, and to an extraordinary degree in the wealthiest country in the world. The lack of food is often officially described as food insecurity. If you ask me, the cold and clinical term "food insecurity" does not even begin to describe the gnawing pain and helplessness of the word "hunger".
So, Mondays in spring semester and Tuesdays in summer, I find myself in the middle of a cooking shift in CK. Meals- including breakfast, lunch and dinner- are made for 100-150 people at every shift. Meals are served in the traditional American style: protein (some form of meat), starch (pasta/rice/ bread/ potatoes), vegetable and dessert/ fruit. I usually take care of the vegetables, and occasionally, the starch portion of the meal. You have to walk into the pantry, check the coolers to see what food has been donated, and work with it. No matter what combination of foods you have on hand, you have to produce something delicious and nutritious, and in the required number of servings. It is quite challenging: a little bit like the TV show Top Chef :) And only a hundred times more meaningful- instead of serving meals to a panel of sneering judges, we are actually serving real people who will be nourished by it! Sometimes, at the beginning of a shift, we find that food is running low, and there are worried looks as the cooking team tries to think of ways to make the amount of food that we need for the day. Miraculously, ideas start spinning and we are always able to make enough food, and to be completely satisfied by the way it looks and tastes. I have made (alone or as part of a team): macaroni and cheese, PB & J sandwiches, egg sandwiches, grilled cheese sandwiches, mushroom-onion rice, roasted vegetables, fruit salad, glazed carrots, taco salad, pasta salad and a dozen other dishes; 40-120 servings of each.
You know the secret to volunteer work, right? That you put in just a little bit of time, and you get *so much* in return. For one, I have the thrill of working in a real big-scale kitchen and live out my fantasies of being a "real chef", heaving giant pots of boiling pasta around, and pulling out 10-lb bags of potatoes and peeling them busily. Plus, I look cute in a hair-net :D
The majority of the other volunteers at CK are college students (undergrads) and it is really fun to be around them. They have never had their own kitchens, themselves live in dorms and eat in cafeterias or fast food restaurants, but the love that they put into cooking is just so inspiring. I have seen these teenagers spend their evenings making mountains of French toast, choosing spices and adding pinches of nutmeg and cinnamon with just as much care as they would put into a special meal for their own families. The job also reinforces the dignity of labor- at the end of every shift, volunteers wash dishes, wipe the counters, mop the floors. Every job is done with a smile. In the end, when the food is neatly packaged into boxes, there are admiring "oohs and aahs" and remarks of "that looks so good!". Another set of volunteers leaves to finish the deliveries. I went on a delivery shift just once and could not hold back my tears when I realized that so many of the meals were sustaining elderly people. These are folks who have worked hard their whole lives, and probably enjoyed cooking as much as you and me, but now find themselves in a difficult situation in their twilight years. They might be unable to buy food (tell me if there is a good way to decide between spending a small pension on either food or prescription medications), or to carry it home , or to prepare it (one lady I met has dizzy spells, which makes it dangerous for her to be cooking). The volunteers always spend a few minutes chatting with the clients, sharing a story and a smile, making sure the clients are doing OK.
Anyway, let me come to the real point of this post: as I said before, the cooks face a challenge in every cooking shift- they have to come up with good recipes using the most basic ingredients. We also don't like to repeat dishes often; we like to keep the contents of the box exciting and appetizing for the recipient. I decided to take on a little project: to make a little Idea Booklet for Campus Kitchen, with some easy recipes, ideas for using the food that we most commonly find in our pantry, and suggestions for cooking common vegetables. Volunteers have varying experience with cooking, and I would love for new cooks to have some ideas to fall back on. My experience with fellow-bloggers and readers of this blog has been that you are a very creative and helpful bunch of people! If you would like to help me in my little project, read on...
a) The foods we commonly have on hand is…
1. Fresh fruit: bananas, apples, oranges (sometimes)
2. Fresh vegetables: potatoes, onions (always) and mushrooms, carrots, corn, bagged salads and other vegetable (sometimes)
3. Canned fruit (always)
4. Canned vegetables (always)
5. Canned beans (always)
6. Rice, pasta (always)
7. Eggs (sometimes)
8. Bread (always in plenty)
b) Our challenge: to come up with recipes using the above foods. These could be for the "starch", "vegetable" or "dessert" portion of the meal- for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
c) What else is available:
Equipment: There is stove-top burners, grill surface, convection oven.
Ingredients: corn oil, olive oil (sometimes), salt and common seasonings and spices, flour, sugar, powdered milk, vanilla etc. are always on hand.
1. No soups or stews because the meals are served in clamshell containers and liquid foods cannot be packaged in these.
2. No food processor, so shredding raw vegetables is a challenge. No microwave, either.
The most valuable recipes for CK are the ones that are easy to make in large quantities, and that are nutritious and crowd-pleasing since we cater to a variety of palates. "Concept" recipes and ideas, rather than exacting ones requiring specific ingredients would be most useful. We really love recipes that are "forgiving" because there is no guarantee that any one ingredient will be available in the kitchen at any given time. Vegetables are the hardest to come by, and any ways to make canned veggies more appealing are much appreciated. Bread is often overflowing, so good ways to use up bread are also much appreciated.
If you have an idea or recipe to share, please do so via e-mail or by leaving a comment. Note that this idea booklet is not going to be "published" in any way. I will merely compile a neat word document, with a good index to make searching easy, and take a print-out and put it in a folder for all the cooks to use. Food bloggers, if the recipe is from your blog and you are willing to share it, I will print it with the permalink crediting it to you. Thank you for your ideas and for taking the time to read this. Updated: I plan to do make this little booklet by the end of September. So, ideas would be most welcome until 25th September.
One more request: I know that many of you are enthusiastic gardeners and can end up with more produce in your garden than you could possibly use. The biggest scarcity we face in CK is: fresh vegetables. A few weeks ago, someone dropped off a big bag of radishes from their garden and we were so grateful! We sliced those radishes and added them to a big salad; it just made our day to be able to put something fresh and beautiful into the boxes. So, please, if you have extra vegetables or fruits or herbs from your garden, consider donating them to a local community kitchen. If you live in St. Louis and bring them in to CK, you know you will get a big hug from me :)
Tomorrow, India celebrates her 60th birthday! Wishing everyone a very happy Independence Day!