“How you doin’ Wallace?” Betty Jo Reuben said as she handed the man at the front of the line a tray. The line had stretched out onto the sidewalk before the doors of the dining room opened and now, some 500 identical meals later, Reuben greeted yet another familiar face. “Oh my goodness!” the man said as he eyed the day’s spread: beef stew, fruit salad, a slice of bread and one of the facility’s staple offerings—a donut.
The Alameda County St. Vincent de Paul Society’s free dining room on 23rd Street near downtown Oakland has plenty of donuts. The bustling cafeteria feeds some 600 to 800 people a day, five days a week, and donations from businesses and individuals keep the charity’s pantry stocked with bread and other carbohydrates, says Christine Lias, communications and grants manager for the organization. The trouble is protein. “We have a strong need for protein,” she says, “I think because of the cost of it.” Meat and poultry donations have trickled in this year compared to other years, staff members say, and with Thanksgiving approaching they’re asking for turkey donations to help serve the needy who know they can find special holiday fare at the dining hall.
Last year the organization purchased turkeys for the meal, a significant financial burden, Lias said, especially because the cost of turkey has gone up slightly this year. The American Farm Bureau Federation places the average cost of a 16-pound frozen turkey at $22.23, up 66 cents from last year. Representatives from the National Turkey Federation and US Poultry and Egg Association blame the price hike on an increase in the cost of feed. This year the worst drought in half a century crippled production of corn and soy, the main components in poultry fodder, representatives from the two organizations say.
This holiday season the St. Vincent de Paul Society plans to serve about 70 turkeys and is seeking donations to reduce the expense. Thanksgiving is the biggest day of the year for the dining room; Lias said she expects to serve up to 1,200 meals this year.
The holiday meal includes more items and heartier portions than the standard offering, says James Lathan, a dining room sous chef. “We want to have a good meal,” he said as he watched a cook ladle beef stew into a serving dish from a steaming 60-gallon kettle. “We want to make them feel like they’re at home.”
The Thanksgiving meal is always traditional, Lathan says, but each year’s offerings are slightly different. This year, Lathan says he will prepare 50 turkeys, 30 gallons of green beans, 50 gallons of sweet potatoes, 30 gallons of gravy, 60 gallons of eggnog and 1,500 dinner rolls. He’ll also serve donated pumpkin and pecan pies. “Everything we make, we have to do the math so we don’t run out,” he says.
Donations to the charity for regular meals and the Thanksgiving service come from businesses small and large: Local establishments Taste of Denmark bakery, Colonial Donuts and Arizmendi Bakery make regular contributions, but so do local Starbucks and Safeway franchises and the Oakland Airport eateries. Individuals also drop off canned goods, pantry items and fresh produce, but the organization receives little in the way of meat. To stretch what meat and poultry they do purchase or receive, cooks often prepare stews and other meals that require small quantities of protein, Lathan says.
The dining room relies on volunteers like Betty Jo Reuben, who has been greeting weekend diners for 24 years, to help prepare and serve food, clean up and wash dishes. The Thanksgiving effort requires more volunteers than any other day, because there are more meal components to prepare and serve, and because some volunteers are needed to ready the dining room with flowers and seasonal décor. Thanksgiving is also special because there’s a warm spirit among staff and diners, Lathan says. “They’re happy,” he says of the diners. “It’s like a harmony. There’s no pushing in line; they know they’re going to get a good meal.”
In addition to the 50 turkeys needed for Thanksgiving, Lathan hopes to have 20 turkeys to serve throughout December. Lathan and the culinary students he oversees through the Kitchen of Champions Culinary Academy program, a three-month training course for low income and formerly incarcerated individuals, will prepare the turkeys in a number of ways. He says it’s valuable practice for his students: “From cooking to serving, all the way down to the bones,” he said, explaining that the trainees will learn how to use carcasses to make stock, which the facility will use all year to make gravy, soups and stews. The students will also learn to prepare turkey pasta primavera, turkey burgers, turkey a la king, turkey stew and a traditional Christmas spread. “We can make anything out of those turkeys,” he said.
The organization has encouraged the recipients of its fall newsletter to donate turkeys. Donors can contact Al Gargantilla, food locker supervisor, at (510) 877-9255 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and coordinate a drop off time. Donors can also mail a check, with “turkey” in the memo line to The Society of St. Vincent de Paul of Alameda County at 9235 San Leandro St., Oakland, 94603 or make an online gift at www.svdp-alameda.org/gift.
Whether or not the dining room receives donations, there will be turkey on Thanksgiving, Lias says. The question is how much it will cost the organization, which relies on donations and income from its thrift stores to fund its programs. “We are committed to feeding the individuals who come,” Lias said. “That is part of our mission and who we are.”
Executive Director Philip Arca says he welcomes holiday donations, but urges donors to remember that the facility needs support year round. “People are really motivated during the holidays,” he said, “but we’re here all the time.”
Kenneth Davis, a 51-year-old Oakland resident who frequents the dining room, spent his last two Thanksgivings there and says he’s looking forward to eating another holiday meal in the dining room. “It’s real good food,” he said with a broad smile as he stood outside the dining hall on a late Saturday morning, hoping to get a last minute meal before it closed for the day. “You can’t keep people out of here—it’s that good.”