For most people, the word “food bank” conjures up images of huge metal bins at the local grocery store, particularly around the holidays, filled with an assortment of random odds and ends. The Redwood Empire Food Bank (REFB), however, goes far beyond standard expectations. The REFB is the largest hunger-relief organization serving north coastal California, from Sonoma County to the Oregon border. Since 1987, the REFB has been helping our neighbors in need and partnering with more than 175 hunger-relief organizations throughout our region to broaden and strengthen our food safety net and get more food to more people who need help.
Bringing Community into the Kitchen
The REFB runs 12 direct-service programs, each focusing on different members of the community – Every Child, Every Day; Senior Security; and the Neighborhood Hunger Network. The Kitchen Collective program, part of the Neighborhood Hunger Network, allows the REFB to use donated ingredients to create healthy, seasonal dishes for low-income residents of Sonoma County.
As the head chef in the Kitchen Collective, I lead several groups of dedicated volunteers who gather Monday through Friday to combine fresh produce, staple foods, proteins and whole grains to create delicious, heat-and-serve meals for our neighbors in need. During my many years as a restaurant chef, I realized that one of the things I liked best about the work was the camaraderie and sense of community in the kitchen. Eating is our most common shared experience. In preparing a meal, I am giving a part of myself to someone else, and that’s exactly why my role at the REFB job is so fulfilling.
Cooking for a new audience
As the only trained chef at the REFB, I now experience that same sense of camaraderie on a much broader scale. I’ve always loved cooking. But now that I am providing cooking instruction each day, with the intention of nourishing our neighbors with quality and delicious meals, I see firsthand the sense of pride that meal preparation gives our volunteers. It is not something I often found in traditional restaurant kitchens. Volunteers become family, building their own purpose-driven communities. And because our commercial kitchen has skillets and ovens, just like professional restaurant kitchens, it’s a phenomenal setting in which to build new cooking skills.
Creative and Inspired Food Options
The Kitchen Collective also provides ample creative challenges for me as head chef and learning opportunities for our volunteer sous chefs. Our continuously evolving and expanding menu is 100% vegetarian. While some may think that would limit our options in the kitchen, I actually find it’s the opposite. Preparing meals without meat products pushes us to use our fresh produce and donated pantry items more creatively. It’s amazing how many hearty and tasty meals can be made from the overlooked cauliflower!
Transforming Common Ingredients
Creamed cauliflower and spinach, tandoori cauliflower, and cauliflower tots have been recent favorites. We’ve also prepared mushroom “bacon” and chickpea “chorizo” tacos to showcase how vegetables and legumes can mimic the flavors and textures found in meat while providing added nutrition. Our program participants often praise the freshness and quality of the meals, the rich flavor and the welcome diversity of cuisine types, and the ease of preparation of the heat-and-eat packaging. This feedback inspires me to keep finding unique, vegetable-based recipes and experiment with diverse flavor combinations.
Some of our favorite methods currently include:
Hand-shredding mushrooms to resemble chicken for enchiladas and matzo soups
Braising broccoli to intensify the vegetable’s flavor in calzones
Thickening stews with puréed products -- a great way to use leftover pumpkin after the holidays
Seasonal and Bountiful Opportunities
During the winter season of giving, most food banks become overloaded with holiday-specific ingredients. In a case of an excess of product, we will often trade other food banks to balance out our inventory, but we also see these influxes as another opportunity to utilize our creativity in the kitchen and to reduce food waste. Let’s take cranberries, for example. We often make pot pies, pierogies, dumplings -- all with a cranberry twist. You’d be surprised how good cranberry ketchup is! The program requires that I push my creativity in the kitchen each and every day, and it is so much fun.
People often ask, “Where can I buy this food you make?” It’s restaurant-quality food. I respect the people I cook for and take pride that we’re the opposite of what people usually think about when they think of a food bank -- a cold, sterile place serving bland and ordinary food. The REFB is a community and the most rewarding one I’ve ever had the opportunity to lead.
If you live in Northern California, join REFB’s culinary volunteers and assist Chef Don Nolan in transforming fresh, donated ingredients into complex, nutritious, heat-and-serve entrées for low-income seniors and families throughout Sonoma County. Drop-in orientations are held Monday-Friday at 9 am and 1 pm at their facility on 3990 Brickway Boulevard near the Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa.
For those outside the North Bay seeking volunteer opportunities, please visit Feeding America: http://www.feedingamerica.org.