Lending a hand at El Caldito Soup Kitchen, where the only requirement for a free lunch is hunger.
By Jeff Berg
If you'll excuse the cliche, the kitchen at El Caldito is as busy as a beehive when I arrive to work a shift as a volunteer. I'd been asked to report to the Las Cruces soup kitchen at 8:30 a.m., but most of the other "unhired" hands have been around since 7:30, some perhaps a bit earlier.
Getting lunch ready in the kitchen at El Caldito, where more than 70,000 people are served annually by 100 or so volunteers.
(Photo by Jeff Berg)
It takes a lot of preparation and planning to feed the 200 or so folks who come to the El Caldito Soup Kitchen for vittles each weekday from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., not to mention those who stop by on Saturday for a "to-go" lunch from 11:30 to noon.
I am quickly hustled off to work after a brief tour of the spotless and well-organized kitchen, which has dual pantries, five fridges, two freezers and a dishwasher. Although the plates and such that are used for the meals are disposable, all of the kitchen utensils are washed mostly by hand as opposed to being tossed into the dishwasher.
Board member Ruth Anderson is no-nonsense as she hands me an apron and a job. Celery — mounds of it — needs to be chopped for the salad that will be served today (salad is an everyday part of the menu). I am joined in this chore by another pleasant volunteer who concentrates more on the chore instead of talking to a freelance hack who almost hacks his fingers off while slicing and dicing the celery.
Very little will go to waste. The leaves and some end pieces go in the soup pot; today's chef's choice is posole. Soon the salad celery is tossed in with some lettuce and tomatoes. The salad will be served along with today's hot dish, which is a turkey casserole with gravy.
A lot of today's food ingredients came from Garduño's Restaurant, which recently made like a tortilla and folded — a hard lesson for a franchise that is successful at all of its other locations. Note to self: never open a restaurant in Las Cruces.
Two types of sandwiches are also being served at the soup kitchen today: the good old staple, PB & J, and a simple tuna-salad sandwich.
And of course there is dessert. In a classic example of "the last shall be first," dessert will be the first item received by the guests who go through the cafeteria-style food line.
In the meantime, there is an ongoing debate between "soupmaster" and El Caldito board president Gabe Chavez and another volunteer about whether oregano should be in posole. No way, says Chavez, but every time his back is turned, you know what happens.
The volunteers banter as they work hard to get ready for today's guests. There is no speech making, no sermon, no grace required or tossed at anyone who comes to El Caldito. Anderson, a retired psychiatric nurse, tells me, "The only requirement is hunger."
The history of El Caldito dates to January 1984, when it was started by Joanne and Nelson Holden, who were active with St. Andrew's Episcopal Church. First named St. Andrew's Soup Kitchen, by the end of that first year, it had served an estimated 4,000 hungry people.
In 1993, incorporation and a name change to El Caldito ("little cauldron") took place, with meals served Monday through Thursday. It was also in 1993 that the Gleaning Committee came to be — the group that races around town to various businesses for food donations.
In 1998, the facility moved to the Community of Hope, which is a campus of sorts with services for the needy — health, temporary housing, social services and so forth. In 1999, a Friday lunch was added, allowing the kitchen to get one step closer to its eventual goal of serving seven days a week.
Today, more than 70,000 people are served lunch annually by the 100 or so volunteers and a couple of paid staffers who keep the kitchen bustling.
Celery chopped, fingers in place, I'm told my next task is to dry dishes, something I don't do at home. Drying is what desert air is for, isn't it?
I grab a towel and pitch in to help Barb, who is also drying dishes as her husband Dave takes on the washing. During the rest of the week, both work as engineers at White Sands; they are regulars at El Caldito, working every other Friday.
A noticeable shift in energy has taken place as much of the prep work is done. The casseroles are in the ovens, the desserts are being topped off, and trays with plastic utensils and napkins are ready to go. Everyone is slowing down a bit, and a few people take a break and sip coffee — until the Gleaners arrive with the day's haul from the various generous stores and restaurants that help out.
Tom MacDonald, who is a rookie gleaner at four months, comes in with Ted Kappos, a veteran of 10 years, whom MacDonald says "knows all the shortcuts." MacDonald's wife, Annette Roberge, works in the kitchen two days a week. Some of the other volunteers end their break a few minutes early to help Kappos and MacDonald haul in the booty.
Vi Scroggins is another new volunteer, a snowbird from Wisconsin who worked in elder care and dabbles as an artist. She helps put the newly arrived groceries away and then assists with putting away the various tools and bowls that Barb and I have dried.
"It's interesting to help out," she replies simply when I ask her about her interest in being a volunteer.
On this November day, Thanksgiving is on the horizon, and this of course is always a big day at places around the country such as El Caldito. The plan is for an expected 400 guests; the local franchise of Texas Roadhouse has agreed to work with the El Caldito staff to bake turkeys.
"We still need more turkeys," Ruth Anderson admits later.
Like Anderson, Becky McNair is a volunteer and also an El Caldito board member. She is a retired teacher who moved to Las Cruces about nine years ago from New Jersey. Today McNair is working on the final tally of the funds that were raised at the organization's recent annual event, Empty Bowls. Each year, as a fundraiser, the community is invited to purchase a bowl of soup at El Caldito, served in a handcrafted bowl that patrons get to take home. All food, service and bowls are donated by local businesses and artists.
"We had about 35 soups and the lines were long," she reports. "We had about 750 people show up, which I think might be a record."
McNair adds with a laugh that her husband is all in favor of her working with El Caldito. "He says it helps keep me out of the mall."
Anderson is proud of the volunteer staff, many of whom have been helping El Caldito for many years. "They just keep coming back," she says. "We also get church groups, and at one time we had some Catholics and Jews working the same shift. They would line up on separate sides of the table, but after they got acquainted they all mingle now. There are LDS members that come every Tuesday."
Don Farrel is another long-time volunteer and also a board member. He has been in Las Cruces for 20 years, following a stint as a firefighter and an earlier military career. His cap proudly boasts his service in the USAF aboard a B-24 Liberator.
Alanna Jentgen is a bit of an anomaly today. Most of the volunteers are retired or about ready to, but Jentgen is an NMSU student, pursuing a degree in multi-cultural education, with a goal of eventually becoming a French teacher. She is putting together a paper of what she experiences and the challenges of doing new things with others.
An interesting volunteer need that could be addressed at El Caldito, Anderson says, relates to composting. She says the soup kitchen would be very interested in being in touch with someone who could help start a composting program. El Caldito would also like help from someone who could pick up, clean and recycle the large tin cans that are used each day.
People are starting to line up outside the door. I'd noted a couple of early birds looking in the window around 10, perhaps hoping for an early lunch. But this place is run on a tight schedule and the doors won't open until 11:30.
Other volunteers have been setting up the serving area, tidying up a bit and making sure beverage containers are filled. Patrons are encouraged to reuse their paper cups, since one of El Caldito's biggest expenses is paper products.
Another bottom-line issue that has recently arisen is the loss of an important donor. Sam's Club has long donated desserts, mostly pies and cakes, to El Caldito and other soup kitchens around the country, but without warning, this pipeline has ceased, allegedly due to a lawsuit filed by someone who got sick after eating a donated donut. A brief Internet search did not reveal any further information about this. In any case, this is not good news for El Caldito or for the estimated 38 million people in the US whom NPR labeled "food insecure" in a 2005 report.
While the appetites build outside, I go to the small, cluttered El Caldito office to talk to Yolanda Dimas. Except for the janitor, Dimas is the only paid staffer. She has held the job since March 2006, and has long worked in the food-service industry. A Las Cruces native, she eloped after high school and ended up in southern California for awhile before returning.
While I wait, Dimas is on the phone trying to make arrangements for an elderly woman to get to the kitchen. The woman is blind, and apparently her granddaughters can't be bothered with helping the elderly woman, whose entire social life is her daily excursion to the kitchen. Frustrated, Dumas says she will go get the woman herself if she has to, but she is hoping Dial a Ride will take on this task.
Dimas has a lot of things on her plate (pun intended). Over the next 20 minutes, we touch on the subjects of supplies (can always use more), volunteer staffing (gets a little panicky if there is not enough help), food drives and how she misses the kids who used to come in to help from juvenile detention. She liked letting them eat whatever they wanted, since the food didn't belong to anyone, anyway. We touch on budget (approximately $2 per person per meal), and finally land on the topic of people who come in drunk.
"That's okay as long as they behave themselves," Dimas says.
But she draws a line on young people: If she thinks they are just ditching school, she'll call the police.
Dimas says El Caldito always draws more men than women, which becomes achingly obvious when the doors swing open and the guests begin to file in. It's an orderly crowd, chatting among themselves and with the volunteer hosts. Some of the volunteers stand on the other side of the serving line to help guests with physical limitations or small children. The line hustles along, with each guest getting a tray-full of whatever they want off the menu.
Over to one side, Donna Wood (another board member) and Alanna Jentgen start opening up boxes of donated brownie mix to prepare for Saturday's sack lunches.
Since it is Friday, any extra perishable food needs to be used up. Some of it goes to Deming with Rick and Louis, who are here to do a pickup for Grace Fellowship.
Rick tells me that the Deming establishment was originally set up as a place for stranded travelers, but has turned into a catch-all for anyone with needs. Besides running the small food bank, the group also operates a soup kitchen and thrift store.
He adds, with a bit of disbelief, that the number of people Grace Fellowship helps has dropped dramatically due to the increased policing of the border. "We used to get some migrants. I remember some that had walked all the way here from El Salvador. But now if we get caught housing any, we can get fined $5,000. We can give them a meal or a blanket, but that's about it."
No such dropoff can be seen at El Caldito, where the queue of hungry folks snakes out the door. The line moves along at a brisk pace.
The guests are a decidedly mixed bunch — all races, all ages, all types of personal issues. Some men look like they have been drinking already, their gin-blossom noses enhancing the term "lit up." There are several women with children, a few biker types, and an assortment of others — elders, handicapped and certainly any number of homeless.
As other El Caldito volunteers mingle with the hungry, I happen to glance out the windows of the front door. Several of the early birds are already done eating and are hanging around outside in small groups, talking and smoking. I also note a woman and two girls standing outside, handing out small flyers.
Sure enough, something God-related is going on. The woman, Barbara Kim, and her two daughters, Sarah and another whose name gets by me, are handing out flyers for the Heart for the World Church's Picnic in the Park. I speak briefly with the elder Kim, who invites me to the event, but I decline.
"We're not what anyone would call an 'organized' religion," she says.
Organized or not, I can't help thinking, they could be inside helping to feed the needy instead of outside proselytizing.
As I get ready to leave El Caldito, the guest line is still long, but the atmosphere remains friendly and welcoming. Some guests hop on bikes and head out to who knows where, while others climb into cars or walk away and head off to do what they need to do.
And they will all have a full belly as they do so.
Want to help? Contact Gabe Chavez in Las Cruces at 523-2538/644-8737 or Yolanda Dimas at 525-3831. Food and money are always welcome, as is your presence as a volunteer.
Senior writer Jeff Berg isn't hungry, and for that he is thankful.