Andre Green from the Berkeley Food & Housing Project expects to serve up to 500 people a Thanksgiving dinner this year. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Andre Green’s mission is both simple and heartfelt: no one should go hungry. It’s a mantra that has worked for him in his more than seven years serving food to the homeless and poor.

After a long stint in the kitchen at the East Oakland Community Project, Green began cooking for Berkeley’s most vulnerable residents on Valentine’s Day this year, as the new food services coordinator for Berkeley Food & Housing Project. The non-profit group serves hot meals to homeless men, women, and children from food purchased from the Alameda County Community Food Bank and wholesale grocery stores, along with donations from individuals, organizations, and businesses.

The 49-year-old San Leandro resident, who cooks out of the women’s shelter kitchen, is excited about coordinating his first Thanksgiving here. In the short time he’s worked for the non-profit agency, he’s revamped the menu and made systemic changes to increase efficiency, reduce waste and loss, and stay within budget. When he first started few came to eat at the women’s shelter. But word has spread about Green’s meals and these days there’s often a line out the door for lunch or dinner, known as the Quarter Meal (that’s what it used to cost to make back in the 1970s) which is served at the Bancroft Way site five nights a week. Monday-Wednesday it’s a sit-down dinner; on Thursday and Friday a take-away brown bag meal is handed out.

The Quarter Meal is Berkeley’s longest running daily free meal program for the poor.

This year about 36,000 such meals will be served, a 12% increase from last year, due to the continued economic crisis. BFHP’s food program is funded through city and county moneys and private grants. More than three quarters of the people who come for meals have physical disabilities, mental illness, and/or a history of substance abuse; all are homeless or transitioning to housing.

Green is mindful of his clientele: dishes are well cooked and soft, to accommodate those without teeth, and he uses seasonings aside from salt, in deference to those with high blood pressure. He has fruit juice on hand for diabetics and fresh fruit and green salad for those who can and want to eat it. Along with a focus on nutrition, dietary needs, and taste, Green wants all the food coming out of his kitchen to look good too.

We spoke earlier this week before lunch service at the women’s shelter on Dwight Way.

What’s on the menu for Thanksgiving?

It’s going to be a feast: we have turkey, ham, gravy, macaroni and cheese, sweet rolls, stuffing, yams, green beans, cranberry sauce, green salad, and apple cider. For the vegetarians we have tofu casserole and saffron rice. And for dessert we have apple, sweet potato, and pumpkin pies. The multi-service center will be decked out with tablecloths. We expect to feed anywhere from 350-500 people.

Lulu Robinson and Andre Green in the women's shelter kitchen on Dwight Way. Photo: Tracey Taylor

What’s your philosophy in the kitchen?

I tell all my staff and volunteers that we only serve food that we would eat ourselves. I also say: everyone eats. Our job is to be of service to the needy.

How do you feel about the people that you cook for?

Most of these people are just down on their luck; it’s hard to come in and ask for help. They just need a second chance. Last week one lady came in with two little boys and one of her sons asked where they were going next and she said: “I don’t know.”  That really got to me. I still care. When you stop caring you need to go do something else.

How do you think the clients feel about you?

They’re all very appreciative of what we do. They can tell if it’s cooking that comes from the heart.

Has anything in your own background influenced your choice of work?

I grew up around a lot of people from single-parent homes who never had enough. I was blessed to have both my parents. We were poor but I didn’t know it. There was always food on the table. My mom was a great cook.

Volunteers serve food at the Berkeley Food & Housing Project. Photo: BFHP

How is your program placed in terms of food donations and kitchen volunteers?

Sometimes we have so many volunteers we have to turn some people away, but not on Thanksgiving. We take all-comers then. During the year, different groups come in and volunteer their time to cook and serve. Loaves and Fishes are a favorite; they’re really clean and efficient.

We get our coffee from Peet’s and Starbucks. We get bread from Semifreddi’s. And Berkeley Bowl supplies our milk. We just have to arrange for pick-up.

Some people, like Natasha Boissier, donate fresh fruit, and she also volunteers in the kitchen. She is so professional and kind to the clients. I’m fond of her.

What do you need in the kitchen?

We could use an energy-efficient dishwasher.  And our roasting pans, pots, and skillets are really old — we need industrial-sized, quality kitchenware, as well as serving spoons and tongs.

As far as food, I’d like to offer our clients more baked goods. And I buy a lot of cheese; it would be good to have a donation source for cheese.

Have you seen any success stories in your short time here?

We had one guy, a regular, I knew he was a mechanic. One day I pulled up at a traffic light and he was driving a Jaguar. He’d gotten his stuff together, had a job, he waved. Not every story is as dramatic, but they all get to me: One lady came and showed me when she had keys to her own home and she told me she’d gotten custody of her kids back. That was priceless.

Hans Johnny Meier with a salad he prepared in Andre Green's kitchen. Photo: Tracey Taylor

What do you like about working in this community?

I like the people: Here we are in the middle of Berkeley, a homeless shelter, and you’d never know it and people are fine with it. We have a lot of long-time donors who give out of the goodness of their heart, they don’t want recognition and they don’t expect anything in return. Just last week a lady came by with gingerbread houses for all the kids. She’s done it for years.

What’s hard about this work?

There’s administrative stuff like keeping in compliance with the health department, staying in the black in terms of the budget, and coming up with creative meals and menus that everyone can eat. But I can do all that. What really gets to me is the kids. They don’t ask to be here, to have this life. All I can do is make them smile and fill their bellies with good food.

What role do you play in your clients’ success?

Well, I don’t want to have a big head or anything…my role is just to feed and nourish them so they can go on to do all the other things they need to do to get back on track.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Donations sought so no-one goes hungry on Thanksgiving [11.21.11]
Berkeley food programs short on funds as demand rises [10.04.11]
Natasha Boissier forages fruit, feeds hungry [02.04.11]