BRICK – Some 240 turkeys were being sectioned, roasted, weighed and refrigerated in the kitchens of the Ocean County Vocational Technical School in the week before Thanksgiving when the culinary arts students were preparing Thanksgiving Day meals for 3,000 of the neediest in Ocean County.
The dinners also include sweet potatoes, dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, string bean casserole and dessert. The meals would be picked up in the days preceding the holiday by various organizations.
Feed the Need is the biggest meal preparation by the students, many of whom plan to work in the food industry and/or further their culinary education after they graduate.
“We expose the kids to as much as we can so they can make a decision about their career once they get out of here,” said Gary Lesniak. “This way they’ll get an all-around idea of what the industry is about.”
Lesniak, formerly a Culinary Arts II instructor at the center, is now their Dining Room Instructor. He has been in charge of Feed the Need since it began some 23 years ago when they started out making 40 dinners, but the need continues to grow every year, he said.
There are approximately 100 culinary students at the Brick center, and they all learn how to break down a turkey or the birds wouldn’t all fit in the oven, Lesniak said. The dark meat takes longer to cook, he added.
Students also prepare some 300 pounds of stuffing, 750 pounds of mashed potatoes, 75 gallons of gravy, 430 pounds of string beans, 450 pounds of canned sweet potatoes and various pies.
Donovan Sloop, 18, is a senior from Barnegat and said this was his second year helping to prepare the meals for the needy.
“I think about the people who are in need of the food, and I think about how do they stay warm? And what do they have for shelter?” he said.
Sloop is already being paid for working in the food industry. On weekends he washes dishes and preps food for JBJ Soul Kitchen, and he also does catering for the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel.
“I love it,” he said. “This is my career. I enjoy baking, and I really enjoy cooking.”
OCVTS partners with Fulfill NJ (formerly the Foodbank of Ocean and Monmouth Counties) to purchase the turkeys and turkey breasts, and many of the side dishes are purchased through money raised in a food drive at Community Medical Center in Toms River by the longtime food service director there, Tommy Yanisko.
Culinary Essentials Chef at the Brick center Joe Jakositz led an assembly line on the Friday before Thanksgiving – portioning, assembling and plating the chilled turkey that had been roasted the day before.
“We use microwaveable containers because we hope that people at least have a microwave,” Jakositz said.
Culinary Fundamentals Chef Jill Scott was with the Employment Orientation students, who were getting the boxes and bags ready for the meals. The students were also learning how to cut the dark meat off the bone.
Baking and Pastry Arts Chef Dennis Melia and his students were preparing some 600 pies that included apple, cherry, blueberry, pumpkin, pecan and coconut custard.
“We’re also cooking turkeys,” Melia said, “all the ovens are needed.”
The students were learning to cook the birds in a Combi Oven, which uses artificial intelligence to roast the turkeys with steam, cutting the cooking time in half.
The school has four Combi Ovens that were purchased through grants from the Carl Perkins Foundation, said Melia, who wrote the grant requests.
Anasia Kelly, 17, is a senior from Bayville, and said this was her second year helping to prepare meals for Feed the Need.
“Some people don’t have food, so we’re giving them stuff they don’t have,” she said. “If we weren’t doing this, I feel they would sit down and not have a cooked meal for the holiday.”
Meals are given to various organizations who distribute them, including 1,000 to the People’s Pantry, 1,000 to Jesus is Lord Fellowship (who took over for Ocean County Hunger Relief), 225 to Seaside Elementary School, 150 meals to Abba’s Heart Outreach, 75 to Manchester Township Regional Day School and others, Lesniak said.