Instead of throwing food away, D-11 now ‘repreparing’ it weekly at Westside Center
If you didn't finish your food as a kid, did your parents ever tell you about the “starving children in China”?
And did you, in turn, wonder how it would help those unfortunates if you did indeed force down that last bit of eggplant (or whatever it was)?
A new School District 11 program doesn't do anything for China either, but its goal is wasting less food, and as a result about 80 Westsiders enjoyed free meals March 16. A movie too.
According to Dick Siever, director of the Westside Community Center, 1628 W. Bijou St., the new “Family Friday - A Meal and a Movie” will be offered in the center's Hughes Hall every Friday night until May 18 (the last Friday before the end of D-11's elementary school year).
The meal time is 6 to 6:30 p.m., first-come, first-served, with the movie at 6:45, shown on the large screen in the hall (except April 6, when there will be no movie).
The diners March 16 were treated to a baked pasta topped with mozzarella cheese. Additional food items were a fruit cocktail and bread pudding. All started with cafeteria food that had been prepared but never served out in 10 district schools, said Brian Axworthy, executive chef for District 11.
After that, the cooked food was cooled down and frozen and brought to the Westside Center to be “reprepared,” as he described it. In that process, the idea is not to reheat the former meal, which might leave it dried out and unappetizing, but to “be resourceful and look at the quality of the ingredients to see how to make it into something else,” he explained. Thus, on March 16, the original spaghetti was transformed into the pasta, various types of canned fruit became the cocktail and cinammon rolls became the pudding.
Health Department guidelines allow food to be refrozen multiple times after being initially cooked, as long as certain temperature rules are followed; however, Axworthy said that he prefers to do it only once because of concerns about loss of flavor.
He also asserted that the district has high-quality food “to begin with,” using a high component of natural ingredients.
The district website (d11.org) lets people click on a school for a given day to find the exact ingredients of any item in any meal.
Axworthy was joined at West by Janine Russell, D-11 assistant director of food services; and Janice O'Donnell, manager of the cafeteria at Mitchell High School. The repreparation idea originally came from Rick Hughes, the district's director of food services, Russell said. “This is something he's been wanting to do for a long time, to help people.”
All three at Westside were there as volunteers. For now, at least, Axworthy said the district is not able to pay staff for its repreparation work at the center. “It's just something new for the district,” he said.
But he's encouraged about future possibilities. The food he was able to reprepare March 16 was enough to feed 140 people in all. The 10 schools from which the excess food came are those initially set up, to use his term, as “rescue sites.” But the district has 65 food-preparation locales in all, so the program has room to grow, Axworthy said.
In that regard, Russell said the district would like to arrange similar meal nights at other community centers or at churches. But because of the D-11 paid-staff restraints, “there has to be a volunteer base” at such places to make it happen, she said.
Such is the case at Westside, run by the Wood-men Valley Chapel. Several of its volunteers were on hand March 16. Also with the help of volunteers, the center has been working with D-11 the last two years in offering an after-school program (in which a bus picks up students from several Westside elementaries).
Siever said the weekly reprepared meals is part of a new center agreement with D-11. Other parts include D-11 becoming the “official caterer” for meetings at Westside and the center being designated one of the district's sites for the free summertime breakfast and lunch programs for ages 18 and under.
The March 16 Family Meal was not publicized, other than to send flyers home with students at three Westside elementaries (West, Bristol and Midland) in which more than 75 percent qualify for free or reduced lunches. Those schools “have the most vulnerable families in the Westside neighborhood,” Siever said.
About 80 people came to the meal on the 16th. He believes the numbers will go up from there. “I'm pretty sure it will fill up with word of mouth,” he said.
No proof of need will be asked of anyone who comes to a Family Meal night. However, there also is no guarantee of food being available for everyone who comes, nor are any reservations taken. Siever suggested that people come closer to 6 than 6:30 p.m.
Siever said the response from the March 16 diners was that the food “was just really terrific.”
Added Russell, “The idea is to feed those in need, but not to make it feel like a homeless shelter. It should be more like a family date night.”
Westside Pioneer article