Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Serving up good at COTS

When was the last time you were hungry? I’m not talking about the last time you saw a Snickers ad, answered “yes,” and peeled back the wrapper. I’m talking about hunger. Not knowing where your next meal will come from; choosing between paying a bill and buying food; malnourishment. Fortunately, most of us have not had to face true hunger. Unfortunately, many of us have — and face it every day. Fortunately, there are a number of folks working to ensure the opportunity for a good meal and a table at which to eat it.

This past Sunday, my husband and I traveled to Burlington to prepare, cook, and serve a meal at the COTS (Committee On Temporary Shelter) day station facility. COTS is an organization, serving mainly Chittenden County, that provides various services including job and housing resource support, emergency shelter, loans, meals and more. The Parsonage Building day station is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. This is not a facility where people may spend the night; however, a noontime meal is served 365 days a year.

There are a number of staff members who organize this mid-day offering, but Chef Keith is a permanent fixture in their kitchen. He works seven days a week, planning, cooking, and serving lunch to anywhere from 20 folks a day early in the month, up to 60 per day, once food stamps and other social benefits run out. Keith’s only reprieve comes when a volunteer group takes over the kitchen for a morning. We met up with the professional chapter of Engineers Without Borders to do just that.

Being a Rutland County resident, I was interested in learning about local venues for folks that also offer this kind of opportunity — both to serve and be served (there is a fine line between the two, serving a meal to others is mighty fulfilling). I have more than once found myself at the Open Door Mission on Park Street, dropping off donations of clothing and house wares to the thrift store or fresh produce from the CSJ farm. I spoke with Executive Director Sharon Russell last week to get a better understanding of the Mission, how it works and how eager folks can help.

The Open Door Mission offers a variety of services from beds to meals to second-hand wares. Like COTS, the Mission employs a full-time staff person to prepare meals 365 days a year. However, because there are also 51 beds at the facility, that’s 365 x 3: breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Sharon knows the numbers by heart — it adds up to about 37,000 meals per year.

The Mission does rely on volunteer help, but not in the same way as COTS. There are scheduled weekly and monthly times when other organizations such as Trinity Church or the Kiwanis provide the meals. Also, the food that is prepared is either bought by the Mission from the Vermont Food Bank or donated from local groceries and farms.

Nutrition is always a concern and meals are planned with a consideration for wholesome, low-sugar food choices. 89 percent of the funds that go towards food and services come from sales through the Mission’s thrift store. But money isn’t the only way to support the programming. People have donated whole sides of beef, leftover or untouched banquet foods, even game from hunting ventures. Adding an extra pound of coffee or a bag of apples to your next grocery cart would do well to land at the Mission’s kitchen.

Back at COTS, here’s how our Sunday morning went: our team’s cook, Lindsay, planned the meal and purchased all of the ingredients. Wishing to make a nutrient dense meal that wasn’t too loaded with sugars (many folks battling nourishment are also battling diabetes), was easy to scale up, and fairly quick to create. She chose lasagna.

We arrived at the kitchen at 10:30 a.m. ready to make enough to feed an expected 50 people. Our crew of eight from got busy chopping, browning and boiling — then layering, baking and waiting — always aware of the 12:30 p.m. deadline and the low murmur of voices gathering in the common space anxious for our creations.

Once the hearty Italian pies were ready, we formed an assembly line and plated about 30 gooey squares and a slice of bread, leaving room for patrons to add salad as they wished. Once everyone was fed, we sat down at the long table and joined in the meal. As plates were cleared, our team headed back into the kitchen to wash dishes and sweep up. Lindsay tallied up the total cost of the meal, about $135, and we divvied it up eight ways. So, for about $35 and three hours of work, my husband and I not only ate lunch, but we fed others. And even more food was sent to the freezer and fridge, further stretching the efforts.

As Sharon Russell stated in our conversation, many of us are a paycheck or a sickness away from homelessness or hunger. By supporting these programs when we are able, it means that the support can be there for those who need it, when they need it.

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