"Cooking at a soup kitchen is a little like being a contestant on Top Chef," says Roscoe Betsill, a New York City food stylist who has donated his time and skills to the kitchen at a men's shelter on Manhattan's Lower East Side. "Be prepared to make the most out of what they have on hand." It's a good thing I spoke with Betsill before I volunteered to help cook at a community center near my home in New York's Hudson Valley. I showed up expecting to do prep work, set up, serve, and wash dishes. Minutes later—reality–TV style—I was handed a spatula and two big skillets and asked to prepare chicken thighs for 40 guests from a local senior center and a nearby homeless shelter. After a brief bout of oh–my–god–I–can't–do–this, I remembered Betsill's words and started giving directions to the other volunteers on everything from tossing the salad to grilling turkey burgers, and personally slicing the biggest watermelon I'd ever seen into 40 triangles. It was the fastest three hours of my week—and the most exhilarating.
As food prices go up and job opportunities go down, many are finding it more difficult than ever to get the food they need to feed themselves or their families. For those more fortunate, volunteering at a soup kitchen or food bank is a great first step toward fighting hunger in your own backyard. It's also a surprising way to boost your health. A 2007 study by the Corporation for National & Community Service found that giving at least two hours of your time each week to a cause can ease depression and heart disease, especially in older volunteers. (The benefit comes from social contact and a potential "helper's high" that offsets the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine, researchers believe.)
Whether you're able to take the helm like Betsill or simply take orders, your service will be appreciated by hungry guests and understaffed workers. If you're not able to commit your time to cooking and serving, you can donate your talents, food, and funds in other ways outlined below. And in the event someone asks you, "Do you know any recipes?" Betsill has developed six riffs on Thanksgiving favorites that are perfect for that scary but thrilling moment when you find yourself cooking for more people than you ever imagined you could.
Deliver a Holiday Meal
For Elizabeth Rose, an adolescent medicine specialist from Bernardsville, N.J., cooking for other people is the high point of her holiday season. "The afternoon before Thanksgiving is the busiest day of the year at my house—all my kids' friends come over and we prepare dinner for the boys and girls at a youth shelter who don't have homes for the holiday. Our house is 'the place to be' that night!" Chances are good there's a youth shelter or group home close to you: Ask around or contact your state's department of child services to find out how you can help.
Lauren Groveman, author of The I Love to Cook Book (Clarkson Potter, 2004), teaches cooking skills to incarcerated women at New York City's Rikers Island. "I teach the girls—a lot of them are young mothers—about basic nutrition and how to buy groceries and cook for themselves. I want them to know that, even if they didn't grow up in a healthy home, they can have a house that smells like Thanksgiving every day." If you're a good cook with a knack for teaching, start with your local community center or soup kitchen (a good database searchable by zip code can be found at America's Second Harvest, see secondharvest.org).
The next time you throw a big party where there's a lot of leftover food, instead of divvying it up among your guests or stashing it in the fridge, call a local "food rescue" organization. Pioneered by New York's City Harvest in the early '80s, food rescue is a simple, practical way to get quality food from the haves to the have–nots. Every day, City Harvest rescues food from restaurants, supermarkets, and farmers' markets and delivers it to after–school programs, soup kitchens, and shelters. "We've delivered more than 200 million pounds of food since our founding, and our model is being replicated across the globe," says senior manager Laura Brown, who suggests checking out cityharvest.org for information on finding or starting a food rescue organization near you.
Make a Donation
Donating money or nonperishable food to a soup kitchen or food bank is one of the easiest—and most effective—ways to help. "Although hunger is a yearround problem, there are needier times than others, such as summer, when kids don't get school lunches, and the holidays, when heating costs and other expenses really put a strain on working families and the elderly," says Barbara Darrow–Blake, director of development at the Alameda County Community Food Bank in Oakland, Calif. If you're not sure what to give, call the soup kitchen or food bank nearest you. The community center where I volunteer needed kitchen utensils as much as it needed food, and my wife and I organized an impromptu "utensils drive" last summer.