Back in February, chef Joan Gallagher and the employees of her company, Nourish You, prepared about 400 nutritious meals a day for students at three Berkeley private schools. She took pride in her signature kale salad, chicken noodle soup and hearty stews. Now that all the schools are closed, Gallagher is still busy cooking in her commercial kitchen space at The Berkeley Kitchens. In fact, she is making more than double the previous number of lunches. But those 1,000 meals a day are destined for a different crowd: homeless individuals, senior citizens and low-income families served by the Emeryville Citizens Assistance Program (ECAP), Emeryville Unified School District, St. Columba Church and other organizations.
In early March, Black Pine Circle, one of three schools Nourish You feeds, closed suddenly because one of its families had been aboard the coronavirus-stricken Grand Princess cruise ship. Gallagher, who lives in Emeryville, found herself with extra produce in her walk-in refrigerator, so she cooked it up and headed over to ECAP, the volunteer-run nonprofit food bank started by former Emeryville councilmember, Nellie Hannon in 1985. Intermittently over the last five years, Gallagher had been donating food to ECAP, which regularly feeds hundreds of under-resourced and disadvantaged people in Emeryville and Oakland. In the past, when she had leftovers from a catering gig, she would put them in a hotel pan, drop them off with ECAP and leave. But this time, she stayed and had a look around.
There, she noticed big bins where the Alameda County Community Food Bank and local stores would leave food donations and was surprised to find them filled with eggplants, potatoes and onions. Those vegetables require cooking and many of ECAP’s participants are living in tents with no cooking facilities. She offered to take the raw vegetables and with some of the excess food from the schools, cook them into nourishing soups and stews to drop off every day.
While on her daily stops at ECAP, she spied donations from local stores. “They were mostly outdated food from Trader Joe’s, Safeway or USDA, stuff like tiny hummus cups and guacamole,” Gallagher told Nosh in a video chat. And when the lockdown began in earnest, she witnessed massive dumping as warehouses closed.
“One of the first days I picked up produce there,” she said, “I had like a thousand pounds of celery, but it was all improperly handled. Another day, I had 17 cases of broccoli, but I could only get one case that I could actually use. In the first two weeks, companies were clearly dumping their products so they could get write-offs.”
“It is so important to me that these people know they matter. These are people who are on the fringe, who other people don’t want to look at, they are powerless.”
One day, Bobby Miller, the manager at ECAP, told Gallagher he had received large amounts of stale bread and huge cases of outdated liquid eggs. He asked if he could put 400 pounds of liquid eggs in her car. Gallagher agreed and made frittatas, fried rice and bread pudding using those ingredients. She was incensed that companies would dump their stale bread to feed the homeless.
“I want to treat these people with respect,” Gallagher said. “This is what I need to be doing. It is so important to me that these people know they matter. These are people who are on the fringe, who other people don’t want to look at, they are powerless.”
As Gallagher continued cooking meals for ECAP, the Emeryville Senior Center closed, and so she added more meals to serve that population. The first week of the lockdown, the chef also noticed what the Emeryville Unified School District was giving out to its students for breakfast: Cocoa Krispies, Froot Loops, chocolate milk and tiny juice boxes. She volunteered to bring EUSD families kale salad and chicken soup. The first week she had 100 takers, which soon grew to 600.
“Families are now realizing they can come and get real food,” said Gallagher proudly. “So, I bring one or two entrees and always a kale salad. They love it! Besides kale, it’s made with red and green cabbage, carrots, apples and maple Dijon vinaigrette.”
As Gallagher realizes the extent of the need, her determination grows.
“My friends told me I should cook for the front line workers, and I said ‘No, I have to cook for the powerless.’ I need to do something for those who do not have a voice. I’m there every day and see they are unsheltered, on the fringe. They don’t have anywhere to go, and they don’t have the wherewithal necessary to fill out the paperwork or have social workers. They are hungry and their families are hungry.”
Gallagher is no stranger to cooking large quantities of nutritious food. Before she started Nourish You, 10 years ago, she worked for five years with the Edible Schoolyard and Berkeley Unified School District, preparing 3,500 meals a day that were distributed to 16 sites. For the past 11 summers, she has cooked 900 meals a day at the Cazadero Performing Arts Camp. And for 15 years, she cooked a monthly dinner for the needy and homeless through the Loaves and Fishes program at Newman Hall-Holy Spirit Parish in Berkeley. She still prepares weekly meals for Sister Thea Bowman Manor, a low-income senior housing community in Emeryville affiliated with St. Columba Church in Oakland.
For the first two months of the shutdown, when Gallagher had to lay off all of her employees, Nourish You was basically a one-woman operation. She cooked seven days a week starting at 6 a.m. with one former employee, who volunteered a couple of hours a day, a friend who came to help on weekends, plus her 21-year-old son, Christopher, who was home from college. She gave Christopher the job of portioning out all the food into individual containers, a tedious new task that she didn’t have to do when serving meals at school dining rooms.
A former Black Pine Circle parent started a GoFundMe page for the chef, and many parents from Nourish You’s three schools donated the fees for the meals they had already paid for. This allowed the chef to buy food for her new patrons. In the beginning, she was supplying most of the ingredients herself, but now that she has figured out when and how to get the best donations, it’s about 50/50.
“I’ve learned how to navigate the system,” she said. “I know if I go to ECAP on Tuesdays at a certain time, I can get stuff that’s useful and I’m also looking at other places to procure food to cook. I’m buying the bases, the rice and beans, and three cases of whole chickens at about $1 a pound, and I roast them off and make a huge batch of bone broth and then I get a ton of vegetables. Today I had a beautiful chicken stew on brown rice.”
After giving away almost 40,000 meals, in early May, Gallagher received a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan. Along with being able to pay rent, she is thrilled to be able to rehire five part-time employees. Now, relieved of much of the physically demanding work, she is investigating further funding opportunities for the future but hasn’t yet found a fiscal sponsor.
Assuming students go back to school in the fall, Gallagher can’t see herself ending her newfound mission. She is currently figuring out a cooking schedule that will allow her to serve both students and people in need.
“Honestly, this makes me hopeful that we are going to regain our humanity, we’re going to tap into what really matters — community. I am hoping that this brings out the best in us. I feel good helping — this is what I am supposed to be doing. We are given this opportunity in the midst of all this pain and negativity, we need to embrace the best possible version of ourselves and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Nourish You is still taking donations through the GoFundMe page. Emeryville Citizens Assistance Program (ECAP) takes volunteers and donations; call 510-499-1263 or read this article from the E’ville Eye for more information.