Five of us culinary volunteers at Redwood Empire Food Bank in Santa Rosa, CA, are about to sample a freshly made biscuit containing Canadian hemp, an edible seed derived from the same cannabis plant species as marijuana. We wonder aloud if we’re risking arrest.
Chef Don Nolan, who’s breaking off warm morsels for us to sample, joins in the good-natured chatter. We aren’t about to be thrown in the clink, experience a cloud-nine-type high, or fail a drug test he assures us. Rather, we’re consuming a perfect protein containing all 20 essential amino acids and a large dose of vitamin E. I live in the South, the self-proclaimed biscuit capital of America, and I thought I knew biscuits, but this California version sets a new standard.
And of course the biscuits are nutritious and good tasting, because we’re whipping them up in Redwood Empire Food Bank’s gleaming commercial kitchen as part of its innovative Kitchen Collective program to help feed the hungry. Five days a week, a team of volunteers assists Don in preparing healthy, protein-rich, ready-to-eat, vegetarian meals from donated ingredients.
My friend Penny, who lives in Santa Rosa, is one of 8,000 volunteers supporting Redwood Empire Food Bank. She invited me to join her on her weekly cooking assignment in the kitchen while I’m on an extended stay in Sonoma County. Even though I volunteer with nonprofits at home in Charlotte, it’s never occurred to me to seek out volunteer opportunities while I’m traveling. Of course I said yes, eager to donate my time to a worthy cause in my temporary home and experience a different facet of being on the road.
Penny heads to the kitchen when we arrive for our shift. I begin my visit with a private tour of the building led by Helen Myers, volunteer services coordinator.
Helen presents a sobering statistic for such a bountiful country as the United States: 1 in 6 people face hunger daily. Redwood Empire Food Bank is the largest hunger-relief organization serving north coastal California from Sonoma County to Oregon, and is one of 200 plus food banks in the Feeding America network. The organization’s mission is straightforward: to end hunger in our community. In partnership with 190 nonprofits offering food assistance, among them food pantries, soup kitchens, senior centers, and after-school programs, REFB serves 82,000 people monthly within a five-county area.
“We ask our volunteers to keep in mind that among six of their neighbors or friends, one is facing hunger,” Helen says. “When they help sort through bread or bag produce here, they could be doing it for the person next door, or down the street, or sitting next to them in class.”
Helen and I go into the warehouse, the nerve center of the operations. Amid the warning beeps of forklifts as they switch into reverse on the warehouse floor, we climb metal stairs onto a catwalk and look below.
Four red cargo doors at the back serve as the “airport” for trucks to off-load and on-load deliveries. A hulking, 5,000-square foot combo refrigerator/freezer unit is at our left. Huge palletized containers of carrots, potatoes, lettuce, apples, and bread are centered on the floor, just a portion of the 28 tons of food Redwood Empire Food Bank receives each day. While REFB does accept donations from individuals and grocery stores, the bulk of its collections comes directly from food growers and manufacturers in agriculture-rich California and other West Coast states. Fresh produce accounts for more than half of what REFB redistributes to the community.
Helping to sort, repack, and label food quickly to ward off spoilage is a priority project for volunteers. In addition, volunteers help pack non-perishable goods into wine boxes made available by the many wineries in the area. They weigh, tape, and palletize about 4,000 of those boxes monthly, primarily for seniors and diabetes wellness programs.
I enter the kitchen more informed about the gravity of my work today. A fragrant aroma of basil drying in the ovens and roasting tomatoes perfumes the room as I don a hairnet and apron, wash my hands, and pull on latex gloves to join the food prep already in progress. I laughingly strike a deal with my fellow hair-netted volunteers, all women – no photos.
Our task for the morning is to make enough ratatouille cobbler for a later shift of volunteers to assemble into 250 individually packaged servings for a senior center.
Chef Don has charged Penny and, by extension, me with making parmesan and basil biscuits that will top the ratatouille, a French stewed vegetable dish with zucchini, eggplants, peppers, onions, tomatoes, and dried basil. Standing side by side at the stainless steel counter we peel fresh basil leaves off foot-long stalks, roll them into thick cigar-type bundles, and mince them with hefty chef’s knives. Happily, Penny and I aren’t competing in a televised episode of Top Chef, because she’s so efficient at plucking and chopping that she’s leaving me behind in a cloud of green dust, so to speak.
Don, a graduate of California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and a 30-year veteran of several Bay area hotels, has adapted a recipe for biscuits he found online by a factor of 10. Also, he decided to make use of a bag of hemp donated by a farmer in nearby Kenwood. Penny and I note where he crossed out one cup of all-purpose flour from the list of ingredients and wrote a replacement of 7 1/2 cups whole wheat flour and 2 1/2 cups hemp. Into the industrial-size mixer we measure those 10 cups, and add relative portions of baking powder, baking soda, salt, butter, shredded parmesan, and basil. The recipe calls for buttermilk, currently not available in the kitchen, so we compensate with a mix of milk and Greek yogurt. Dough ready, Penny rolls and cuts some rounds, then lays them on baking sheets. She hands the task over to me as she prepares a second batch.
I think I’m fairly competent in the kitchen, but I have yet to get the hang of dough. It’s like a long-running feud where I rarely come out on top. Determined nevertheless, I flour the board and rolling pin, sprinkle flour on top of the mound of green-speckled dough, and roll away. Apparently my technique is rather fierce, for Don, who has a gentle, encouraging way with us volunteers, says, “The thing with dough is to roll it out slow and easy.” As Don talks, his hands and hips sway back and forth, as if to provide me with the proper tempo. I dial back my speed and pressure to his satisfaction, feeling especially victorious when our biscuits come out of the oven beautifully raised, delicately browned, and light in texture.
The others are in major chop mode, cutting the vegetables into mouth-sized pieces and sautéing them together in a tilt skillet. As the name implies, they tip the machine when the vegetables are finished cooking, and scrape them into several deep trays to cool.
Jobs done, we clean and disinfect our work stations, afterwards discarding our hair nets and gloves and tossing the aprons in bins to be laundered.
I realize I’m feeling the same sense of satisfaction from accomplishing a shared goal for the sake of others at Redwood Empire Food Bank that I experience with my nonprofits in Charlotte. Even as simple an effort as baking biscuits can help forge a closer connection to a place and its people, and open a new dimension to travel.