At the end of each lunch shift, the cafeteria at Providence Alaska Medical Center often has food that hasn’t sold. Maybe a few trays of mashed potatoes are left, or a pan of mixed vegetables. Perhaps they made too much grilled chicken or the roast beef didn’t sell out.
Fortunately, the hospital does not let that good food go to waste. For the past 35 years, the hospital has employed a common-sense solution to having too much food – feed the hungry. In 2019, Providence Health & Services Alaska, through in-kind donations, allotted 1,465 man-hours and $126,120 in wages and supplies to feed hungry Alaskans. Every day, the kitchen creates meals using perfectly good food that would otherwise be thrown away.
In the back of the kitchen, Indie Cruz gets creative. She has been in the food-service industry for years, working in upscale kitchens, cruise ships and more. For the past three years, though, Cruz has used her culinary talents to prepare tasty soups, casseroles and meals that are nutritious and delicious.
Using this food to feed the less fortunate is not only the right thing to do, but it also cuts down on waste at the hospital, reducing its environmental footprint.
“It is such a smart use of resources,” said Amanda Barlow, who oversees Cruz’s daily creations and works with her to ensure all ingredients are being used efficiently. “I haven’t seen anything like this in any of the hospitals I have worked in before.”
On a recent Friday afternoon, Cruz is preparing a large bubbling pot of minestrone soup. Her inspiration came from the previous day’s noodles and vegetables. She generally starts her soups with a mire poix, a French term for the onion-celery-carrot combo that is the base of most soups.
“I like the creativity,” Cruz said. “I want to keep in mind that I am feeding humans and make something that I would eat.”
Cruz said she may not see the recipients of her soup – each day, hundreds of bowls of her soup are served at the Brother Francis Shelter, and meals are also delivered to Covenant House for teens, Clare House for spouses seeking emergency shelter and other locations as needed – but she cooks each day as if she is planning a meal for her own family.
“After the mire poix, you have to go slowly, and add the ingredients one at a time,” she said. This process takes time and mustn’t be rushed, she said, but the result is a hearty, memorable soup.
Some days, Cruz will make casseroles, depending on the ingredient list, which she carefully charts and monetizes. She also records every recipe she develops — chicken curry and Southwest chicken are two of her favorites. Fellow kitchen staffer Jefferson Bueno does the cooking on Cruz’s off days; he prefers soups with beef in them.
“I like knowing I am doing good, that I am helping someone,” he said. “A happy tummy is a happy life, you know?”
In fact, Barlow said, every detail is tracked, from how many meals are served to how much it costs to produce each donated batch of soup. In 2019, the program served 76,231 meals across Alaska, including a full Thanksgiving dinner with turkey and ham, with an average of 220 people being served every day. Barlow flips to a clipboard that shows the previous day’s soup that was delivered to the Brother Francis Shelter: It served 223 visitors.
On another clipboard is the cost: Cruz’s minestrone soup used $4.28 of new product from the kitchen freezers and $165 worth of leftovers. On average, the soups served at Brother Francis come in at less than $1 per bowl, feeding a hungry soul and making good use of healthy ingredients.
David Rittenberg, program director at Brother Francis, said the daily soups are a comforting constant in the lives of people who often live amid chaos and uncertainty.
“A lot of people who are experiencing homelessness may not know where their next meal is coming from,” he said.
Furthermore, he said, when the soup is delivered, guests at the shelter who are enrolled in a pre-employment program use their food-service skills to prepare and serve the food, furthering the shelter’s ability to help guide guests toward more productive lives.
“Our core service is shelter services, and if we were to get into food services, that could water down our ability to provide those needed shelter services,” he added. “Providence provides hot nutritious meals for us 365 days a year. We couldn’t serve these meals without them.”
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