On a sunny Monday afternoon, eight teen volunteers were busy inside a commercial kitchen in Soquel preparing meals for cancer patients and their families. The middle and high school students were clad in white aprons bearing the Teen Kitchen Project logo. They worked quietly, chopping vegetables, straining huge pots of broth, creating large batches of tapioca pudding, and washing and sterilizing a mountain of plastic food containers. While music played softly in the background, the only other sounds were from knives chopping uniform pieces of kale for salads and fans whirring over the industrial stove where gallons of creamy potato soup were simmering. The meals they were preparing would be delivered free of charge to individuals and families living with life-threatening illnesses.
Chef ElizaBeth Link, who was overseeing the young volunteers, had a smile on her face as she went around the room, stopping at the stove and each of the three double-sided stainless steel work stations to offer advice and encouragement to the teens.
“We’re making soup, salads, desserts, and are prepping for the main courses,” Link said. “More volunteers will come on Tuesday to help make our main course dishes and pack up meals for the first round of deliveries.”
Teen volunteers also hone their cook- ing skills on Wednesday afternoons, when another round of nutritious meals is prepared and packed to be delivered to clients. Food
is placed in labeled, reusable containers, and meals are bagged for each individual client based on the size of their household. Some clients live alone, while others live with spouses and children. The Teen Kitchen Project prepares and donates meals for patients and for their families.
“We pack everything up on Tuesdays and Wednesdays so our delivery angels can come and pick the meals up and bring them to clients,” Link said. “We deliver all over Santa Cruz County, from the north end to the south.”
Deliveries are handled by adult volunteers like Becky Steinbruner, who also helps out in the kitchen. She washed big stainless steel pots used to cook soup while her daughter Bria chopped vegetables. Steinbruner, who often is accompanied on her delivery rounds by her daughter, said they frequently stop at nurseries to pick donated flowers to give to clients along with the meals. Steinbruner finds the volunteer work very rewarding.
“I’ve met some amazing people doing the deliveries,” she said. “Some of them just really need to talk, so we’re doing more than just delivering good healthy food. It’s an honor to be part of this and make such a huge difference in their lives.”
When she is not delivering meals, Steinbruner prefers to take over kitchen cleaning duties so the teens can prepare the food. That allows the volunteers to learn cooking skills while serving the community. They also learn about nutrition and its importance in restoring and maintaining good health. The teen volunteers seem to find their pro bono work very satisfying, and they enjoy the team atmosphere in the kitchen. “I like all the help and support I get here,” said Bria Steinbruner, 15. “I like making food for people with health issues and making them feel better. I’ve learned to make some really cool dishes here.”
Max Freedman, 14, agreed.
“It’s a great team feeling in here,” Freed- man said while hand drying container lids that had just come out of the dishwasher. “Everyone’s super nice here, and I get to con- tribute to my community.”
The teens, who have put in thousands of volunteer hours since the kitchen opened in 2012, rotate jobs so no one gets stuck doing unpleasant work all the time. Some of them even offer to do more than their share of the less popular jobs.
“I do mostly prep work and cleaning,” said Freedman, who volunteers three to four hours each week. “I actually like doing dishes here.”
The non-profit Teen Kitchen Project provides meals free of charge for the first 12 weeks, according to chef Link. After that, clients are asked to make a donation if they are able, to help defray costs. But if they can’t afford to donate, they still will receive meals, Link said. No one is turned away due to lack of funds.
Co-founder and executive director Angela Farley said the Teen Kitchen Project has prepared and delivered over 35,000 meals since its inception in 2012, and demand has grown exponentially. In its inaugural year, the project served eight clients. Now the project serves more than 15,000 meals every year to 125 clients and their families.
“It’s taken a few years, but we’re doing pretty good,” Farley said.
The project is truly a community effort. Most of the fresh produce is donated by local farmers, including Lakeside Organic Gardens and Live Earth Farm. Other area businesses that donate products or cash to the kitchen
include Whole Foods, New Leaf Community Markets, Driscoll’s, Tecumseh Farms Smart Chicken, Manuel’s Mexican Restaurant, Luma Yoga and Family Center, Caroline’s Non-Profit Thrift Shop, Santa Cruz Cancer Benefit Group, and many others. Hundreds of individuals have donated cash, as have many local busi- nesses and agencies. The Teen Kitchen Project nourishes the community, empowers teens, and enriches the lives of all of its volunteers.
“I love it here,” said Arden DeVincenzi, an adult volunteer whose many jobs include labeling containers and organizing meal pack- aging. “This is the best job I’ve ever had.” ❧