Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Cooking Up a Storm with the Nashville Food Project

Posted by on Tue, Mar 27, 2012 at 8:19 AM

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The Nashville Food Project was established in June 2007 under the name Mobile Loaves & Fishes. Working out of a commissary kitchen at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, the group bought their first catering truck and began making runs into homeless camps three days a week, delivering sack lunch meals. Two years later in January of 2009, Mobile Loaves & Fishes moved to Woodmont Christian Church, when a second catering truck was added to the food project.

In October 2011, Mobile Loaves & Fishes Nashville became The Nashville Food Project, an independent entity that uses local funds and local volunteer labor to address the local problems of poverty and food insecurity in Nashville. Using food donated by local churches and restaurants, volunteer chefs prepare 100 meals Tuesday through Friday to distribute via their two food trucks to needy individuals living in weekly-rent hotels and homeless encampments around the city.

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They also grow their own produce in gardens behind the church to provide more food and to educate urban youth about the process and necessity of urban farming. The staff and volunteer chefs are really quite creative as they plan menus around whatever shows up in the kitchen through donations or can be purchased at tremendous discount through Second Harvest Food Bank.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to join Judy Wright and Mary Carter in the kitchen recently as we all worked to prepare 100 nutritious and tasty meals for people living in several North Nashville hotels. Like an episode of Chopped, we took a few minutes to meal-plan as we shopped the pantry to see what was available, with particular attention to ensuring that as little food was wasted as possible. Whenever possible, the Nashville Food Projects tries to use fresh organic vegetables, but they also go through gallons of frozen vegetables too.

One thing was certain, we had to make Judy's meatloaf recipe, because if that doesn't show up on every other Tuesday's truck, there might be some disappointed people clamoring at the trucks at the Savoy Hotel for Miss Judy's meal. A gracious donation leftover from a catering gig by Calypso Cafe was transformed into a sort of chicken chili pie for later in the week. Homemade croutons were made from bread donated by local sandwich shops and from Provence.

We made huge trays of mac-and-cheese with a surprisingly nuanced bechamel whipped up by Chef Mary. Even though we were working in what amounted to an average-size home kitchen with four burners and a couple of extra wall ovens, the team danced a ballet around each other to make sure that everything came out hot in time for the volunteers who load up and drive the food trucks to apportion them into 100 trays in time for a 5 p.m. departure. Time waits for no hungry person.

I was especially impressed by the care the entire organization took to present healthy meals that were also attractive, offering some extra dignity over a stereotypical soup kitchen steam-table line. When confronted with a donation of kale not quite big enough to cook up something substantial for a hundred people, I suggested whipping up a few hotel pans of kale chips and proceeded to crisp them at the last minute to sprinkle on top of some roasted root vegetables as a garnish that might add a little extra nutrition.

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I'm sure that they were just being nice to me as a visitor, since heck, all I did was tear up some leaves, sprinkle them with olive oil and salt and bake them for 10 minutes. But you'd think that I had shared with them the secret of cooking with fire. It did dress up the dish nicely, though.

Anne Sale is the staff member who coordinates the hot meal program and is always looking for volunteers. The afternoon cooking schedule stays fairly full, but where you Bitesters could really help out is with their Tuesday prep work. A combination of Hands On Nashville volunteers and other good folks who just come over the transom work together in shifts to wash and chop vegetables, slice bread, make desserts, and participate in other aspects of meal preparation.

These mise en place masters had already finished their work by the time I arrived in the kitchen, but by all accounts it is a very fun atmosphere if you'd like to help out with this worthy venture. Judy described it as a joyous "Kibbutz-like" environment with people from all walks of life coming together to work in the prep kitchen while they socialize with new friends and catch up with old ones. For a genuinely rewarding way to give back to your community, I encourage you to consider supporting The Nashville Food Project with your time, your money or both.

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