BRICK – Some 3,000 of the needy in Ocean and Monmouth Counties will have a Thanksgiving meal with all the fixings due to the hard work of culinary arts students at the Brick center of Ocean County Vocational Technical School (OCVTS).
No one is exactly sure when “Feed the Need” started – the best guess is somewhere around 25 to 30 years ago – but it began when a church group asked if the culinary arts students could prepare 25 meals, said vo-tech teacher, Chef Gary Lesniak.
The program has grown and grown over the years as the need became greater, he said, and they try not to turn anyone away.
OCVTS partners with Fulfill Food Bank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties, who provided some 500 frozen turkeys. The birds arrived on November 4, just before the fall school break, he said.
It took a full week for the turkeys to defrost in the refrigerator, so when the students returned from break on November 14, they deboned them since they otherwise wouldn’t fit in the ovens, Lesniak said.
The culinary arts students learn that dark meat typically takes longer to cook since it contains fat, and the bones are used to make stock for the gravy, Lesniak said.
It takes more than just turkey to make a Thanksgiving meal. Tommy Yanisko, who is the Food Service Director at Community Hospital in Toms River, holds a cash fundraiser every year for Feed the Need.
Yanisko’s fundraiser pays for most of the groceries, including green beans, yams, onions, butter, potatoes and much more, Lesniak said. Yanisko prepared over 1,000 meals during the COVID pandemic, which was the only year Feed the Need was canceled.
OCVTS Chef Rosanne DelNero taught the students how to prepare the green bean casserole and stuffing. Chef Donna Squelero showed them how to prepare the sweet potatoes, which included marshmallows and onion crisps.
Chef Jill Scott, who teaches Introduction to Culinary Arts to high school juniors and seniors, had organized two assembly lines on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving when the students packed the dinners that consisted of 2 oz. of dark meat, 4 oz. of white meat, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potato mash, green bean casserole and gravy.
“They are learning volume feeding, which are far-reaching skills that are used in assisted living facilities, hospitals and manufacturing,” Scott said.
Brick vo-tech student Derek Whittom, who is a junior at Brick Memorial, helped to portion the turkey and prepare the mashed potatoes.
“I always wanted to learn how to cook because I want to work in a restaurant,” he said. “And it’s for a good cause.”
Maille Fitzpatrick, who is a post-secondary student from Bayville, said she enjoyed learning how to debone a turkey.
“It means a lot because this will help a bunch of people,” she said.
Xavion Moore, a senior from Lakewood High School, said his favorite part was cutting up and mashing 300 pounds of potatoes.
Mariah Blevins, a junior from Pinelands High School, said helping people get food for Thanksgiving “is a wonderful opportunity; it puts the cherry on top.”
Lesniak said first year students are apprehensive during the massive Thanksgiving food preparation, but “once they get going, they realize the magnitude of Feed the Need.”
The meals will keep for a week because the students plate them cold and keep them cold, he said. They are microwaveable, but Lesniak said he suspects a lot of the meals are eaten cold since many might not have access to a microwave or a stove.
The meals are distributed to a number of non-profit organizations, such as 750 to Jesus is Lord Fellowship in Brick; 180 to DCF (child protective services); 35 to Chambers Bridge Residence; 45 dinners to an at-risk-youth outreach program called TEAM, run by Brick Police Officer Sean Flynn; 210 meals to Seaside Heights Elementary School; 45 to Toms River Senior Center, and many others, Lesniak said.