Saint Louis University

BLOG: The Best Classroom on Campus is in the Kitchen

Author: Holly Faivre
Published: Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Every Monday from 4 to 6 PM I am privileged in leading a group of volunteers in preparing 148 meals for those battling hunger in the Saint Louis Midtown area. This is made possible by the non-profit organization The Campus Kitchen Project (CKP). The D.C. Central Kitchen is based out of Washington D.C. and has spread to 33 college campuses and high schools across the country so that students may make an impact on hunger relief– and SLU had the first one! As a dietetic culinary student, I can think of no better way to serve the community than doing what I love – cooking delicious and nutritious meals.

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Our kitchen is located in Reinert Hall on the Frost Campus of Saint Louis University. A vast majority of our food supply is donated by Trader Joes. They gift us food that is soon to expire and would otherwise end up in a landfill. Throughout the week, our volunteers repurpose this food into over 450 meals! Over 20,000 meals are cooked, packaged, and delivered by over 700 volunteers throughout the year.

Saint Louis University dietetic internship best classroom in the kitchen

The most challenging aspect of CKP is meal planning. Each client receives a protein, starch, vegetable, and a dessert or fruit. Creativity and ingenuity are a must when you are working with limited supplies of both food and equipment. The first step in meal planning is assessing the type and amount of protein on hand because our clients receive a 4-ounce portion. Trader Joes donates both pre-cooked and raw meat – when using the latter, shrinkage must be accounted for to ensure that each client receives the promised amount. This meal may be the only one a client eats in a day so it is essential to give them the full 4 ounces. The protein is the only aspect of the meal that can be difficult to plan because we often have a hefty supply of fruits, vegetables, and bread products.

When deciding the actual meal components, I have to consider the equipment we have in the kitchen. Cooking for 148 people is not like cooking for oneself – everything is on a much larger scale and has to be done a bit differently. For example, last week we cooked 20 pounds of ground beef for burritos but do not have a flat top or enough pans to cook on the range. I decided to place the beef in the oven in hotel pans and a volunteer stirred it once every 5 minutes to break up the meat and allow for a faster cook time. This may have been unorthodox, but it got the job done. If it seems like a cooking technique is not working, it is important to adapt and keep moving forward because many people are depending these meals.

Saint Louis University dietetic internship best classroom in the kitchen

When preparing food in large quantities, food safety must be on my mind at all times. Most of our volunteers do not come from a culinary background, which can cause food safety procedures to be overlooked. Every cooking shift leader must be ServSafe certified to ensure proper handling of the food, and every volunteer must wear a hairnet and gloves. I always designate one prep table to raw meat and do not allow different meats to cross paths. We wash and sanitize every table after each task so our environment is as hygienic as possible. We record the temperature of all meats, fish, and egg products throughout the cooking process to verify that our food is heated to the proper internal temperature. We also record temperatures throughout the cooling process so that the food is kept out of the “Danger Zone” of 40oF to 140oF, which is ideal for bacterial growth. Food safety is a serious component of my job in the kitchen and cannot be taken lightly.

My role as a CKP cooking shift leader brings me immense joy – I am happiest and most at ease in the kitchen. Cooking for 148 people in 2 hours is by no means simple but it is very rewarding. I have so much fun with my volunteers and they always leave with a little extra culinary and nutritional knowledge. At the end of the shift, the volunteers are so proud of what they've accomplished, and I am always impressed with them. I encourage everyone to volunteer with CKP; there is nothing more meaningful and selfless than gifting a meal to someone in need. Having a wholesome meal in one's stomach will only have a positive effect on their life. Being a part of that will warm your heart.

Saint Louis University dietetic internship best classroom in the kitchen

*If you are interested in volunteering, visit campuskitchens.org and find SLU in the locations tab.

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