Like many other homeless shelters, the Pine Street Inn in Boston’s South End relies heavily on donated food for the roughly 2,000 meals it prepares each day. And when you’re dependent on charity, you don’t have much say in what you receive.
For Pine Street, that means lots of grocery store castoffs, including “stuff that doesn’t look attractive anymore, like tomatoes with cracks on top or bruised apples that stores don’t want sitting on their displays,” said Frank van Overbeeke, the shelter’s executive chef. “They’re perfectly good, but they’re just not visually appealing.”
Even when the shelter receives better-quality produce, like farmers market leftovers, shipments can be erratic and of varying size, making it hard to plan a meal for thousands.
But for the past few months, Pine Street Inn’s guests have regularly been eating garden-fresh vegetables with a gourmet touch, from braised kale to roasted beets to sautéed Swiss chard.
That’s thanks to a new partnership with Food For Free, a Cambridge nonprofit that’s growing produce specifically for the Pine Street Inn and delivering hundreds of pounds of fresh veggies to the shelter each week. The shelter then turns those deliveries into highly nutritious stir-fries, stews, and side dishes.
Another benefit of the weekly shipments: “I can expose kitchen trainees to new techniques, as opposed to just taking frozen veggies out of the freezer and putting them in a steamer,” said van Overbeeke. “Having fresh food come in gets everybody’s creative juices going.
“When you get a whole lot of red beets or kale, you start thinking, hey, what do I have that I can cook together with this to give it a bit more flair and excitement?” he added. “That’s when the cooks can brainstorm with each other about some of the interesting things they can do,” like pickling fresh veggies, or mixing them with cases of donated chutney.
Food for Free “rescues” unwanted food from supermarkets, bakeries, farmers markets, and other locations and delivers it to about 120 schools, shelters, food pantries, and other organizations. It also grows produce at Lindentree Farm in Lincoln, on a quarter-acre organic plot called the “Field of Greens.”
Food For Free distributes about 2 million pounds of food a year, including between 5,000 and 8,000 pounds of produce grown at the farm. For the past five years, it has been making deliveries to the Pine Street Inn, primarily of rescued food. But this year it began dedicating its entire field exclusively to the shelter.
“We’ve selected our crops based on what would be useful for the Pine Street Inn,” said Food for Free’s executive director, Sasha Purpura. “This is the first time we’ve been so targeted about what we’re planting.”
Each Wednesday morning since June, Food For Free volunteers have been gathering in Lincoln to pick, wash, pack, and deliver to the Pine Street Inn anywhere from 200 to 400 pounds of the harvest — including beets, cabbage, lettuce, Swiss chard, collards, kale, scallions, carrots, and tomatoes. The program will continue through the end of the growing season later this month or early next month.
“We’re happy to receive any fresh produce,” van Overbeeke said, “because when you don’t really get anything fresh, you’ll take anything that anyone gives you.”
And the volume of vegetables Food For Free supplies to the shelter is invaluable, because “when we get deliveries from small organizations, it’s 50 pounds of this and 10 pounds of this and 5 pounds of that,” explained van Overbeeke. “But for a single meal I need about 400 pounds of vegetables.”
Each Food For Free shipment is large enough that the Pine Street Inn’s kitchen staff can turn it into a vegetable dish to accompany a meal for about 2,000 guests of the shelter and its related facilities, such as veterans homes.
One day last week, dinner at the shelter was spaghetti Bolognese paired with a julienned stir-fry made from Food For Free’s kale, cabbage, and scallions seasoned with garlic, vinegar, and mustard.
“The best part of getting fresh produce from Food For Free is it lets us take something that was in the ground a day or two ago and serve it for dinner,” van Overbeeke said. “It’s great to provide our guests at the Pine Street Inn with a farm-to-table experience here.”