Feeding 1000's @ The Bridgeport Rescue Mission

Liz Rueven

Restaurant Chefs are a self reliant bunch. Chef Paul Byron reminded me of that fact when I met him in the dining area of the Bridgeport Rescue Mission. Chefs are by nature, creative, resourceful, organized planners. They manage ingredient lists, weekly menus and schedules of all kinds. These details and more, factor into the efficiency of a restaurant kitchen and ultimately into the presentation of tempting plates to restaurant patrons.

Now, imagine for a moment, the opposite.   Imagine a chef that prepares three meals a day including five seatings for dinner.  He rarely orders or chooses his ingredients,  rather he cooks with what is available to him. At unexpected moments,  if he is fortunate,  boxes  of unrelated ingredients are dropped off at the back door to his kitchen.   He can only estimate how many guests will arrive for any of these meals.   This is not a description of a competition on the Food Network. Chef Paul is the Food Services Manager and Chef at the Bridgeport Rescue Mission. He is no longer a self reliant restaurant chef, a job he held for 25 years.  Since taking this position three years ago, he mostly depends on donations.  Food is donated through area churches, community organizations and individuals. Financial support comes from private donors and funnels into an annual operating budget of two million dollars, according to Linda Casey, Director of Development.  Chef Paul’s only paid  kitchen staff  is one part time assistant.  How does he feed 40,000 hungry people a month in this dining area?  How does he coordinate and prepare hot meals for a mobile kitchen that brings food to neighborhoods in Bridgeport, South Norwalk and Ansonia for lunch and dinner 6 days a week?  He is dependent on volunteers, young interns from a local chef training program and untrained workers who reside in this shelter.

The Bridgeport Rescue Mission  proudly states that they are “fighting poverty from the inside out.”  While sheltering, training, and educating 30 men and 15 women in a year long residential program, NEW LIFE takes on the responsibility of  healing, assisting, nurturing, and  nourishing recovering addicts of alcohol and drugs.  In addition to feeding residents of this year long program, the mission serves meals to those who enter this rambling, 100 year old home on Fairfield Ave. in Bridgeport. The kitchen serves meals 7 days a week, 365 days a year and never turns a hungry person away.

Chef Paul’s “guests” are the working poor, the homeless and the chemically dependent who seek meals at this remarkable facility. “More intact families than ever are coming to the mission for meals,” stated Reverend Terry Wilcox, Executive Director.  “With 26% of Bridgeport residents living below the poverty line, the number of meals we serve increases dramatically each year.”   The word “guest” truly reflects the attitude of those at the helm of this dedicated operation.  They welcomed and fed  250,008 guests into the mission’s dining room between January and June of 2010.  The dining area is painted a soothing, sky blue.  A stainless serving counter and three long rectangular tables were immaculate after the breakfast clean up.  The kitchen is equipped with donated stoves and one convection oven, 3 narrow refrigerators, a couple of prep sinks and areas for hand washing.  A charred pan still smoked on the stove.  One of Chef’s assistants had forgotten to turn off the fire.  His patience and good nature were evident in his blue eyes.  125 pounds of potatoes were peeled, chopped and waiting to be cooked for lunch.   Everything seemed orderly in the kitchen and in the rows of stocked, canned goods in the food pantry I toured after descending a steep and creaking flight of steps to the basement.

Linda Casey and Chef Paul told me about the impact of the Westport Farmers’ Market donations on the population they serve.  Lori Cochran Dougall, manager of the weekly, outdoor market that runs from May-November, was determined to find a Fairfield County shelter that would accept vendors’ unsold produce at the close of market day.  There were plenty of reasons that other shelters could not accept the fresh food donations. Issues ranging from potential for food spoilage to restrictions due to funding were valid but frustrating.    Finally, a contact returned her call after regretfully turning down her offer.  He referred her to Chef Paul.  He jumped at the opportunity to provide his guests with fresh produce each week.  Without hesitating, he dispatched a truck, with two of his residents, to the Westport market  near the  2:00 finish on that Thursday afternoon. Vendors were inspired to donate what they did not sell. The Thursday pick up at 2:00 is a regular event now. The impact of this weekly donation of fresh produce is huge.   Executive Director, Reverend Terry Wilcox explained, “Because we prepare and serve food  every day, spoilage is not an issue.  Chef Paul’s passion to feed the hungry allows him to take all of the food in.  He puts it all to good use.  With only 50% of kids in Bridgeport graduating from high school, better nutrition through fresh food is vital to their growing and being able to learn.”

As a result of the weekly donations, collected at the Westport Farmers’ Market, Whole Foods in Milford and through another farmer in Oxford,  more nutritious meals are being served in the dining area.  In addition, these donations have prompted a new program.  At 3:00 on Thursdays, just one hour after the food has been picked up from the farmers’ market, there is a distribution of fresh produce to anyone who stops by the mission.   Residents and volunteers assist Chef Paul by displaying the produce on long, rectangular dining tables.  Guests may chose as many fresh fruits and vegetables as can be fit in one grocery bag.  

In addition to the fresh produce pick up, the daily meals served to 40,000 people a month, a mobile kitchen unit traveling and serving 6 lunches and 6 dinners a week, there is also a “pantry box” distribution that is assembled from the food storage bank in the home’s basement.  Enough canned goods and other food is assembled to feed a family of 6 for one week.  The basement is stacked  with rows of canned sauces, rice, tuna and other goods.  But it takes only one month to deplete the entire stock, prompting many calls to organizations for emergency food supplies.  When the pantry boxes are filled and ready to distribute, Chef Paul tucks in 2-3 recipes to help his guests stretch these provisions and combine the ingredients in new ways.

Linda Casey, Director of Development, joyfully relayed the impact of a major gift of $70,000 they received  this month from Foster and Lynn Friess of Jackson Hole, WY.   “August is always our slowest month for donations of all kinds.  Typically we need to borrow to meet our monthly expenses of $160,000.  This generous gift will help us make it through our toughest month ever.  We are very grateful.”  Lori Cochran Dougall explained about the donation,  “ My husband and I attended a a 70th birthday celebration,  in honor of our good friend, Foster Friess.  In lieu of gifts, Friess requested that each guest propose an organization that would benefit from a $70,000 donation.  We made our case for why the Bridgeport Mission needed these funds so desperately.  We fully expected him to choose one recipient.  Instead, he awarded each of the proposed organizations the same generous amount!”

Chef Paul's helpers at the marketAs the Chef and Ms. Casey walked me towards the back door of “their” kitchen, they introduced me to two men who make the pick up each week at the Westport Farmers’ Market (seen right).  Lori Cochran Dougall hugged them both and proudly remembered,  “One Thursday when the weather suddenly turned wildly windy and rainy, these 2 guys stayed with me until all of the vendors’ tents were dismantled.  They wouldn’t leave me alone to manage in the rain.”  New friends have been made this summer, thanks to the connection of those committed to helping neighbors.  Chef Paul pointed to a flowering , late blooming tomato vine that had burrowed under the rickety back stair case of this 100 year old home that provides refuge and food to so many in need. “This plant is like us.  Despite the struggle,  it  is a survivor.”

To make donations or volunteer at the Bridgeport Rescue Mission, go to their web site.   Non-perishable food may be placed in the donation box provided at the Westport Farmers’ Market.   Chef Paul will be presenting at the Westport Farmers’ Market on September 16, 2010.