A burst of laughter and the smell of sweet potato pie spill out of the volunteers' room as Ashley Boyd pushes the door open. A group of volunteers are relaxing with satisfaction after accomplishing their task: preparing and packaging hundreds of freshly cooked meals. The dishes include herb-slathered chicken with mango salsa, which will go out — along with four other dinners, three salads, three freshly made soups, five desserts, as well as yoghurts, fresh fruits and snacks — to critically ill people who are homebound. Ashley, the volunteer coordinator, introduces us around, and Josephina Duarte, a staff member now after volunteering here for years, shows us examples of the high quality meals that are ready to go out. She also offers us some of the sweet potato pie — a volunteer perk.
The setting is a unique JP institution, where we have come to learn something about an unusual garden. It's the world of Chef Brad Stevens, the executive chef at the Community Servings kitchen that each year prepares and delivers 377,000 free, home-style meals to 1,450 people who are too sick to cook for themselves or their families. Many JP residents get a jolt from volunteering at the high-energy JP facility, located behind the Stony Brook T station, where meals made with fresh food provide clients not only with good nutrition but also a sense that someone cares.
It's both the fresh food and the caring part of the Community Servings program that prompted the garden. The story actually starts a couple of years ago in South Africa, where some Community Servings folks, who have been in this business of serving the critically ill for over 20 years, had gone to provide technical assistance to an organization serving those with HIV/AIDS. There were ¨grow boxes¨ (known here as Earth Boxes) at the South Africa site, provided by through the Growing Connection, a program of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The Earth Box is designed to provide plants with a consistent supply of water (through a reservoir at the bottom of the box) and a consistent supply of nutrients; it is being promoted by the UN to grow food in urban environments.
Fast forward to the installation of 12 UN-funded Earth Boxes at Community Servings, where Chef Stevens, an executive chef in the restaurant business for many years before joining the nonprofit/local food/community development world, oversaw the planting of herbs used in his preparation of meals. (Stevens has kept a close watch on his garden, and like other local gardeners, complained that while most things thrived, this was a bad year for cilantro.)
Community Servings has made a commitment to fresh local food. Some results of that commitment are the weekly Farmers' Market held on-site throughout the season, and the Community Supported Agriculture and the Community Supported Fishery programs launched to benefit both the sick clients and JP residents. An advantage of housing the projects at Community Servings is that food that is not picked up by shareholders remains at the Community Servings kitchen to be turned into food for sick clients.
The Herb Garden is another part of this commitment to fresh local food. Watered by volunteers throughout the season, the on-site garden provided fresh herbs for countless meals prepared this year. (Setting up such a garden would not be surprising in the restaurant world which Stevens came from; on-site gardens were named the top trend by chefs in 2010.)
"It makes my job interesting, to come to work and open the walk-in fridge and see wall-to-wall butternut squash," he said. "Most chefs would not be able to be as flexible as I can be, but we can alter menus to fit our fresh ingredients, and our steady supply of volunteers makes it possible to prepare those meals."
But some bounties stymie even Stevens.
"Thousands of radishes," he said after a moment's pause, "are a little more of a challenge."
Whatever the menu, the fresh herbs on hand help him to make that food tasty. Ever aware of the health aspect of the food he prepares, Stevens points out that fresh herbs boost flavor and can help you use less salt and/or fat in your meals.
'We used the herbs in so many ways! We were able to make all kinds of pesto this summer.¨ Stevens smiled and added, "Pesto is much more than the basil sauce people usually think of. Pesto really just means something that is crushed, and we use all kinds of herbs."
A glance at the recipes on the community servings Web site confirms his assessment: the herb-rubbed chicken calls for parsley, sage, thyme, scallions, and mint. Pestos have also been made and frozen for use in meals to be made this winter, and Stevens has overseen the drying of herbs in the administrative area of Community Servings as well.
Stevens is expecting to double the number of Earth Boxes next year, lining them up on the sunny concrete alleyway between buildings, and he is counting on volunteers to keep them watered. Right now there is a special need for volunteers to prepare food baskets before the holidays, and to help make the Pie-in-the-Sky fundraiser work. Volunteers are essential to the life-enriching work Community Servings does all year long; it takes 850 volunteers each month to prepare, package and deliver the meals. Volunteers keep coming back for more (could it be the sweet potato pie?).