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Redwood Empire Food Bank volunteers prepare hundreds of meals for homeless shelter in a bind

The peeling was finished. Now dozens of butternut squashes would have to be cut into bite-sized cubes.

“Let’s just try not to cut off any fingers,” Molly Milano advised her fellow volunteers Thursday morning in the Redwood Empire Food Bank’s industrial-sized kitchen.

That’s when Don Nolan, the food bank’s chef, pulled the gleaming Robot Coupe vegetable cutter out of a nearby cabinet. Once the squash was loaded and a lever pulled, the Coupe expelled scores of perfect orange cubes, to the delight of the volunteers.

“It slices, it dices!” exclaimed Milano, briefly channeling Ron Popeil.

It wasn’t the first time Nolan had come to the rescue this week. Closed for nearly two years on account of the coronavirus pandemic, the food bank’s kitchen reopened this week to help a fellow nonprofit in need.

Sam Jones Hall, a homeless shelter on Finley Avenue, needed a hand. The holiday season, the omicron variant and a fierce cold snap had created a perfect storm for Catholic Charities, the homeless outreach and shelter operator that runs Sam Jones Hall.

Many Catholic Charities staffers were off for the holidays. Between opening a nighttime warming tent to protect vulnerable people as temperatures dipped close to freezing, checking clients for COVID symptoms and helping them get vaccinations and boosters, the nonprofit found itself stretched thin, said Jennielynn Holmes, head of homeless services for Catholic Charities.

So it asked Nolan and the Redwood Empire Food Bank for help. Could they prepare 560 meals to be served over four days?

“They didn’t even blink an eye,” recalled Holmes, who expressed deep gratitude and appreciation for the food bank – already a primary provider of sustenance for the charity’s weekly distributions in Sonoma and Lake counties. “They are one of the most important safety nets we have. We could not do the work we do without them.”

“They said, ‘Hey, we need some help,’” Nolan recalled. “And, you know, we have the resources.”

He immediately set about reopening the kitchen, wrangling a small group of volunteers, then planning menus for four days of dinner service, a task involving considerable creativity.

“My job is kind of like ‘Chopped,’” he said, referring to the Food Network show on which chefs must transform baskets of mystery ingredients into three-course meals.

“So make something good out of it!” said volunteer Clareen Monks, working alongside her brother, Jody LaRocca. “Yeah, make it work!” he added.

The mystery ingredients this day: whole turkeys from Popeyes, apparently left over from the holidays, alongside the cauliflower from CalFresh, and that winter squash from the garden of an anonymous good Samaritan.

Chef Don and his crew had already prepared a dozen or so trays of stuffing, featuring, obviously, bread, of which there’s seldom a shortage at the food bank, and made far more interesting by nuts, diced apples, spices and ample amounts of cashew butter, donated by Myokos Creamery, which makes vegan dairy products.

“We don’t always get the opportunity to help directly like this, so it’s kind of neat,” said Chef Don, sprinkling donated spices – “salt, pepper, nutmeg, a little thyme” – onto trays of cubed squash.

It made him happy to know that these meals would go to folks who truly needed them.

“When your family is preparing a meal at home,” he added, “they’re putting it together with love, you know?

“And that’s what we’re doing here, putting together something we know is nutritious, it’s tasty, it’s good for them. And we’re preparing it with love and respect.”

Another volunteer, Doug Rexrode, had driven up from Petaluma where he has donated his time at the COTS homeless shelter.

“We’re not gonna save the world,” said Rexrode of his volunteer work in the kitchens. “But we can make it a slightly better place.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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