Students Cooking Meals For Those In Need: Another Thing To Be Thankful For

High school seniors Rosie Ramos, Lakewood; Jovanny Garista, Beachwood; and Shane Goff, Whiting, prepare the potatoes. (Photo by Judy Smestad-Nunn)

  BRICK – Chef Gary Lesniak picked up 400 frozen turkeys on November 8, which marked the first step in the annual “Feed the Need,” when the culinary arts students at Brick Vo-Tech prepare nearly 3,000 meals for the needy in Ocean County.

  The birds, which had been provided by Fulfill Food Bank, spend about a week defrosting in the refrigerator before some 140 culinary students, who are bussed to Brick from about 15 Ocean County high schools, break the turkeys down and separate the dark meat from the white meat which are baked separately.

   Meal prep includes 30 cases of yams, 750 pounds of potatoes, 150 pounds of onions, 480 pounds of green beans, 300 pounds of cornbread stuffing mix, and more.

   Lesniak estimates that this is the 25th year of “Feed the Need,” which started when a church asked if the students could prepare 25 dinners for their food bank.

Students are shown how to prepare a large number of meals. (Photo by Judy Smestad-Nunn)

  “From there, it has grown into what it is today,” he said on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving while supervising the students as they packed the completed dinners into containers.

  “Feed the Need” is the biggest meal preparation by the culinary arts students, many of whom plan to work in the food industry or further their culinary education after they graduate.

  Chef Jill Scott, who teaches Introduction to Culinary Arts, said the students missed preparing the meals last year, which was downsized due to COVID.

  Food Service Director at Community Medical Center in Toms River, Tom Yanisko, holds a cash fundraiser for the event every year, and last year he provided about 1,500 meals through the hospital, she said.

High school seniors Leah Martin, Lacey, and Domonic Terrero, Manchester, slice onions for the dressing. (Photo by Judy Smestad-Nunn)

  Student Mikaela Widuch, a high school senior from Brick, said her job had been to help prepare the mashed potatoes this year.

  “Everyone worked together to get the potatoes done,” she said. “We had to peel, dice, steam and mash 15 50-pound bags of potatoes,” she said. “It makes me very happy to make these meals for people who need them.”

  On the day before Thanksgiving, the various agencies come to the school to pick up the meals. Some of the agencies include the Department of Children Protection and Permanency, Golden Opportunities Outreach, Jesus is Lord Fellowship, Preferred Behavioral Health, Inspire-NJ, Seaside Heights Elementary School, and more.

  Chef Lesniak said this year, Brick Police had requested 40 meals to be distributed to an outreach program for youth.

  When asked if the pandemic had increased the need for meals, he said small soup kitchens have popped up, many funded by COVID grants.

  “Those grants might be short-lived,” he said. “Maybe next year we’ll get hit even harder if those small efforts disappear due to a loss of funding.”

Chefs Jill Scott and Gary Lesniak show off 1,702 packaged meals in the walk-in refrigerator. (Photo by Judy Smestad-Nunn)

  “There is definitely still a need out there – maybe more, because people have been isolated for a long time. Some have lost loved ones – it’s certainly not the same for them,” Lesniak said.

  The kitchens at the culinary arts school were set up to prepare 2,960 meals, and by Tuesday the students were getting close to that number.

   “We try not to turn anyone away,” Lesniak said.

The finished meals will go to those in need. (Photo by Judy Smestad-Nunn)