Most Fridays, (and other weekdays) a dedicated group of volunteers report in at Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program’s back entrance as that day’s lunch crew. As “chef,” it’s my job to work with each of them to prepare and serve a delicious and healthy meal in a warm and welcoming setting. On average around 130+ people are served between 11:00 and 12:30, enjoying a restaurant style meal and conversation with friends and volunteers. So, how does this happen?

Normally, the protein to be served is known well in advance, as it usually needs to be thawed. It is not uncommon, however, for the best laid of plans to go wildly astray! That’s when the flexibility, adaptability and good humor of the volunteers really shines! Assuming we’re preparing the protein we were expecting, the rest of the meal’s components have to be assembled. We try very hard to use what we have in abundance. In the summer and fall, there are usually large amounts of produce, thanks to our supportive farms and vendors. In the winter, salad is scarce and the veggies are often frozen or canned. The dilemma of how to prepare this much food is always with us. We are fortunate to have a double convection oven as well as a commercial range with two conventional ovens. Usually, with some planning, there is room for everything. Some large cuts of meat can require cooking in advance. As an example, this week’s 70 pounds of ribs will get a dry rub and slow covered roasting on Thursday, so they can be cut, sauced and served Friday.

Volunteers get the veggies they need from the food pantry volunteers  and begin washing, peeling, chopping, whatever needs to be done. If we want to make potato salad ( a particularly labor intensive starch choice, but popular) we wash, peel and chop up to 40 pounds of potatoes that are boiled in batches and dumped into large pans, where they are sauced, mixed, covered and put in the walk in freezer to cool quickly. For this to happen in a timely manner, others are finely chopping onions and celery while mixing large bowls of dressing. It is a bit like an orchestra with lots of different instruments to make a harmonious sound! There is a wide variety of starch to choose from in addition to potatoes:  various pasta, rice, and other grains occasionally. Some chefs use a commercial rice cooker; others prefer to bake it in the oven. Potatoes can be mashed, oven roasted, au gratined, whatever will complement the main dish.

The day’s vegetables can be combined and/or cooked various ways, depending on what has come in. Roasted medleys are very popular, especially in cooler weather. Stir fries made in giant pans, or baked combinations ensure there is plenty of variety. Fresh green salads are also made, if the supplies are available. If salad greens are not around, coleslaw, fruit salad or bean salad can fill in. If bread is being offered, it is also prepared while drinks are poured and desserts and sliced and plated. We usually have a wide assortment of desserts, mostly donated by Hannaford; it is hard to choose!

While not directly related to what our guests eat, but as important is the cleanliness and sanitation rules we follow. All work surfaces are washed and sanitized before and after prep. Chairs are wiped and tablecloths are cleaned. Silverware is hand wrapped in napkins (by gloved hands). All dishes are washed and sanitized by machine. Food scraps and other organic material are either composted (off site by a professional firm) or donated to local pig farmers (which can reappear as pork!)

At 11:00 the doors open and our guests join us. They are served a beverage, salad if they wish, and the day’s meal. Seconds are allowed, if desired, and a selection of desserts is presented. Bussers clear finished plates and wipe the table, placing silverware in anticipation of the next guest. By 12:30, it’s over, except for a few people lingering over dessert and coffee. Cleanup is efficient and fast, leaving everything spic and span and ready for the next day. This day’s meal took the efforts of the following: food prep 3-4, servers 5, bussers 2, chef, sous chef, pot washer, dish washer. Often, we have vacancies and that can be a challenge. Come for lunch and consider helping in the soup kitchen or pantry. It is a fun and fulfilling place to work, the people are great, and the food’s good!

Giving Voice is a weekly collaboration among four local non-profit service agencies to share information and stories about their work in the community.

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