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A line formed Monday night at the kitchen window of Clementine, a small neighborhood restaurant where Chef John Russ served steaming-hot red beans and rice with a side of cornbread.
“Only someone from N’awlins does beans like that,” one woman called out to the chef as she left. A silver bucket sat by the door to collect the suggested $10 donation per diner with all proceeds benefitting the San Antonio Food Bank.
The traditional Louisiana-style dish isn’t always on the menu at this family-owned Castle Hills restaurant that is usually closed on Mondays. But Russ cooked the 30-pound pot of beans and ladled the bowls himself as he served about 65 people who gathered to help the food bank meet its latest challenge.
“There are 27,000 federal workers in San Antonio,” said Michael Guerra, chief resource officer at the food bank. Though not all were furloughed, he said the agency came to the aid of 2,500 people who were affected, providing produce and staples during the longest government shutdown in history. “On Friday, we gave 25 boxes to the National Weather Service in New Braunfels.”
The fundraiser at Clementine was planned before the White House announced Friday the government would reopen. But that didn’t stop Russ from putting the beans on to soak Saturday night, and cooking them all day Monday as his mother and grandmother might have done.
An all-you-can-eat buffet, the bowl of beans and a link of sausage came with iced tea, cornbread, a salad, and brownies for dessert, a spread that Russ’ pastry chef wife, Elise, helped organize.
The fundraiser was just one of several events and food drives the San Antonio community held in the last few weeks to bolster Food Bank pantries during the shutdown. Extra volunteers have shown up in recent weeks, Guerra said, including a crew of 100 service members from the U.S. Coast Guard who worked at the food bank on Friday.
“This community is always amazing,” Guerra said. Though the food bank was prepared to meet the unforeseen demand despite a serious food shortage last fall, it’s always needing more of the basics, like tuna, peanut butter, and macaroni and cheese, he added.
“Give back” nights, like the one at Clementine and others at local restaurants such as Cured, Pharm Table, and Los Barrios, help fill the gaps. “They do it because that’s what’s in their heart,” Guerra said.
Monday also marked the first donation of food from a local restaurant given through the Food Bank’s new MealConnect app. Still in a pilot phase through May, MealConnect allows a restaurant to electronically notify charitable food providers of leftover food it is willing to donate. When a match is made, a volunteer driver is notified to pick up the food and deliver it to food bank partners such as homeless shelters.
The first donation was a platter of 20 muffalettas given by Guillermo’s, a downtown restaurant owned by Guillermo Garza. In previous test runs, the ice cream shop Lick has also made a number of donations, said Food Bank Restaurant Engagement Coordinator Lauren Deal.
Others involved so far include Boss Bagel, Cheesy Jane’s, HoneyBaked Ham Co., Jamaica Jamaica Cuisine, Tripoli’s Mediterranean Grill, and True Flavors Catering. About 20 volunteers have signed on as food couriers.
Also new at the food bank are plans to build a culinary training kitchen. “We know that hunger can’t be solved by canned goods, so if we can get people working, and at a good wage, that’s the goal,” Guerra said. Every 12 weeks, the food bank trains 12 people in food service and puts one person a day into full-time work.
To continue that mission, the organization will break ground this summer on the training kitchen and will likely add a meat processing plant to handle the thousands of pounds of venison local hunters donate to the food bank during deer hunting season.
Also in support of the food bank’s efforts to help furloughed federal employees, County commissioners on Tuesday voted to re-allocate $50,000 in funds to the food bank, money that was originally earmarked for the Jazz Concert Series which won’t be held this year.
On Friday, Feb. 1, the Cesar E. Chavez Legacy and Educational Foundation will hold a press conference for the 23rd annual March for Justice (March 30) during which San Antonio Food Bank President and CEO Eric Cooper also will kick off the event’s nonperishable food drive.