St. Vincent de Paul Brings Home-Cooked Meals To Those In Need Year Round

Published: Wednesday, November 26, 2014 - 5:05am
Updated: Wednesday, November 26, 2014 - 12:08pm
Kathy Ritchie/KJZZ News
Oversized canned goods
(Kathy Ritchie/ KJZZ News)
Kitchen manager Jay Baker.
Kathy Ritchie/KJZZ News
Sweet potatoes from St. Vincent de Paul's garden.
(Kathy Ritchie/ KJZZ News)
Volunteers chop yellow squash.

St. Vincent de Paul, like a lot of food banks across the Valley, is working overtime this holiday season. But there’s a story behind the people in the kitchen.

Jay Baker is the kitchen manager at St. Vincent de Paul. Every day, he oversees a small staff of volunteers who prepare 4,000 meals for those in need.

Volunteers are chopping yellow squash for a lunch he is catering later in the day. Nearby, beef chili stew is simmering in two massive 100-gallon vats. In another part of the kitchen, a volunteer is scooping rice pilaf from a 40-gallon skillet.

"We can do approximately 1000 people out of the 40-gallon skillet," Baker said.

Baker speed walks toward the prep station where a group of volunteers are unwrapping whole cooked chickens. There’s food everywhere, oversized cans of green beans, sacks of onions and boxes of bananas. Despite the daily demands facing Baker, almost everything that comes out of his kitchen is homemade.

"I think it helps the people on streets realize that people actual care about what they’re eating instead of throwing some stuff into a pot and heating it up," Baker said.

Before coming to St. Vincent de Paul for work, Baker came to the nonprofit for a meal.

"I was living in a place out here and I needed to get out of it, so I packed a back up one morning and slept on the canal for about three months," he said.

Eventually, Baker, who is a trained chef, was offered an entry-level job in the kitchen.

"It took me about four years to work my way up to management," he said. "It was quite a struggle."

Besides relying on Baker’s culinary skills, St. Vincent de Paul depends on food and financial donations to produce the thousands of meals it prepares in its warehouse-size kitchen 365 days a year. For the most part, this Thanksgiving is no different. The 1,800 pounds of turkey is coming from U.S. Foods, the 600 pies are coming from Costco.

"And then we’re going to do a sweet potato casserole," Baker said. "The sweet potatoes are coming out of our garden."

500 to 800 pounds of sweet potatoes, as a matter of fact.

About a year ago, St. Vincent de Paul partnered with Tony Kasowski, the owner of Grow Kale, a local gardening business to grow kale, chard, beets and dozens of other fruits and vegetables.

"So instead of just consumption here, we’re going into the business of production and we’re doing it organically, sustainably," Kasowski said.

Kasowski and another volunteer spent around 1,000 hours building St. Vincent’s 1.1-acre garden. The idea is to supplement existing donations with fresh produce, while making good use of an otherwise useless lot.

"It’s pretty cool, let’s go over here," he said. "I’ll show you how they grow."

For Kasowski, the garden, which he and St. Vincent de Paul plan to expand, is a logical next step for the nonprofit.

"When you’ve got canned goods, a) they’re not really nutrient-dense and b) you’ve got stuff like BPA in there, c) I mean, we just ate some of this, it’s there, it’s ready. This is fast food," Kasowski said.

As for Baker, the garden is just another pantry providing healthy ingredients for his home-cooked meals.

"The end of the day, we’re all here for the same thing," Baker said. "To try to help somebody that’s in need of help."