To learn more about Bridge House's mission to serve Boulder's homeless and working poor -- or to volunteer in a variety of capacities -- visit the organization's website at boulderbridgehouse.org .
Pounds upon pounds of potatoes. Bundles of bananas. And a massive amount of milk.
The flood of food delivered to Bridge House's newly opened commercial kitchen in east Boulder on Wednesday only served to emphasize what the 2,700-square-foot facility means to the nonprofit organization and the meals it provides Boulder's needy through its Community Table program.
With walk-in coolers, state-of-the-art equipment and vastly more space than its old cooking digs, the aptly named Community Table Kitchen greatly improves Bridge House's ability to churn out the estimated 60,000 meals it produces annually for the city's neediest residents, staff members say.
Meals will be fresher, as food can be cooked all week and served the next day instead of five days worth of meals being prepared over two days in the kitchen of Bridge House's neighbor -- Boulder's First Congregational Church -- and frozen until it's time to be served.
The food will be more nutritious, staffers say, utilizing fresh produce from the Bridge House's garden and fresh dairy to provide more balanced meals.
And improved food quality is just the beginning. The facility also provides an opportunity for Bridge House to expand its Ready to Work job-training program for its homeless clients into the food service realm.
In its first week of operation, two recently homeless Bridge House clients helped out in the kitchen, receiving competitive wages -- the program pays $8 an hour initially -- and on-the-job training that the nonprofit organization's staff hopes will help them land jobs with private employers in the near future.
"I think the impact is going to be dramatic," Bridge House Executive Director Isabel McDevitt said of the Community Table Kitchen. "We are marrying our two missions: to provide nutritious meals for the homeless and working poor who don't have access to other food, and to create jobs for homeless individuals looking to get back to work through our Ready to Work program."
'This feels like fate'
Emphasizing what an upgrade the kitchen is, McDevitt noted that the Bridge House day shelter and base of operations -- the historic carriage house located near Pine Street and Broadway, behind First Congregational -- is about 1,200 square feet, or less than half the size of the new kitchen at 5345 Arapahoe Road.
And that is without considering the 900 square feet of office space located above the new kitchen. Bridge House staff including the development director, volunteer coordinator and nutrition/kitchen director Shari Leyshon will work out of that space, McDevitt said.
The kitchen project, which included buying the building, renovating it and outfitting it with completely new equipment, costs about $990,000, McDevitt said, all of which was provided by an anonymous donor. Things moved quickly, with staff finding the space in September and closing the deal in October.
"This whole project really went off without a hitch," McDevitt said. "This feels like fate. We were 100 percent on time with our construction, our team worked really well together and this is what we have."
'Providing good nutrition'
Leyshon has been involved with Bridge House for five years, spending the last year-and-a-half as a paid employee. She has experience as a pastry chef and artisan food broker, helping small food producers sell their products to distributors.
She spoke enthusiastically Wednesday about how the kitchen would impact the 60,000 servings of food Bridge House prepares annually, a number she expects to ramp up to 70,000 in the near future.
Community Table dinners still will be held at First United Methodist Church, Mountain View Methodist Church and St. John's Episcopal Church.
Leyshon said she's excited to cook hot breakfasts for the first time for the program, as well as provide healthier meals with more fresh veggies.
"Homeless people really have a backlog of nutritional deficiencies, so providing good nutrition is really a way to support their recovery so that they can reach their highest efficiency," Leyshon said.
Leyshon said she became involved with Bridge House because she liked its broad impact, connecting the homeless with counseling and other resources to address their physical and mental health needs while also helping them move toward stable housing and employment. She said she's happy to see the program grow through the kitchen, where Ready to Work participants will prepare meals side by side with community volunteers.
"Our clients become connected to something bigger than themselves," she said of her kitchen trainees. "The opportunity they have to invest their skills and their abilities and to participate has almost an instant impact on self esteem, and that is just so powerful."
'It's been incredible for me'
Douglas McKee can speak to that power.
The 57-year-old former Bridge House client was part of a Ready to Work crew that performed clean-up and landscaping jobs in downtown Boulder until just recently.
McKee spent two decades working in restaurants in the Aspen area, though he simultaneously was dealing with drug and alcohol addiction that contributed to his homelessness. His kitchen experience helped earn him a full-time position as the Community Table Kitchen's sous chef.
"I literally went from picking up cigarette butts to being in staff meetings, which was mind-blowing," McKee said. "To be able to open this, it's been incredible for me personally."
The excitement was evident on McKee's face when he spoke about cooking in the facility, floating ideas about fresh soups and in-house baking. The Army veteran was optimistic about doing some catering out of the facility in the future to help make it self-sustaining.
He said his main goals are giving back to the homeless community through nutritious meals, leading by example for Ready to Work trainees and being able to do it all while clean and sober -- a status he has maintained for three years.
"For me on my end, I hope to set a good example that you can get out of homelessness if you want to," McKee said. "You can get off the drugs and alcohol if you want to. But it starts with you. You have to make that decision."
'I am trying and I don't give up'
McDevitt said the goal is to have five Ready to Work trainees working in the kitchen by year's end, but for now there are two: Samantha Nelson and Fred Foster.
Nelson, 36, is staying with a friend now, but was most recently homeless for a year-and-a-half after quitting a job as a certified nursing assistant because she said she disagreed with her employer's politics.
She outlined the challenges the homeless face when seeking employment, whether it's stigma -- "They see your backpack and see you're sleeping in a bush and they fire you" -- or not having the proper paperwork and ID, or trying to keep a regular schedule when you have to move around every night to avoid camping tickets.
"It's not easy out there and there are a lot of prejudices. Some people have given up," she said. "I have good people in my life right now. I'm trying and I don't give up."
Nelson said Bridge House "understands what happens to street people," citing examples such as some homeless not having Social Security cards because they've been stolen, or showing up to work wet because they had no place to get out of the rain.
"Bridge House really gives a hand to people who are trying to change their life," Nelson said. "There are people out there who do want to work. It's awesome that this program helps people like that. It really does build your self-esteem to go and cash a pay check."
'Cooking looks like a pretty good thing'
Foster, 57, first experienced homelessness following his divorce in 2008. His wife was the primary breadwinner and Foster admits he was unprepared for life after marriage and went through a period where he didn't care about anything anymore.
He's staying at the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, where he is part of its transition program, designed to help clients move into sustainable housing.
Two weeks ago, Foster joined the Ready to Work program, first as part of the unpaid "internship" portion where Bridge House staff work with clients to ensure they can keep a work schedule and meet other obligations before moving to a paid position.
While he previously toiled as a short-order cook, Foster said he has never worked in a commercial kitchen before. Tuesday was his first day working in the Community Table Kitchen. He said he most enjoyed spending time with the volunteers who helped with the cooking, calling them "great people."
"I figure this will give me experience, and I'm getting to the age now that cooking looks like a pretty good thing to me," Foster said, adding that he sees Ready to Work as a way to better his circumstances. "I want desperately to be out of the shelter. I'm thankful, and it's a place to lay my head every night, but I'd love to get out as soon as I possibly can."
'A total win-win'
Wednesday's 3,100-pound food delivery to the kitchen came courtesy of Community Foods Share, a longtime Bridge House partner and the designated food bank for Boulder and Broomfield counties. When Bridge House was working out of the First Congregational Church, weekly food deliveries ranged between 1,200 and 1,700 pounds.
Michael StaffordCrane, Community Food Share's director of operations, and Michele Harvey, the food bank's programs manager, helped unload the delivery Wednesday. Both commented on the benefits of the space, including having better storage, and tools such as a blast chiller, which will cool food more quickly and allow the kitchen to cook greater quantities of food while still meeting food-safety standards.
Harvey said an estimated 58,000 people live below the poverty line in Boulder County and hunger is a growing issue, which she feels the Community Table Kitchen will be a valuable tool in combating.
"We all feel it when we miss a meal," Harvey said. "For folks that might be only getting one meal a day, it's important to be able to get a full day of nutrients, which we know is the goal of Bridge House in every meal they serve. And Community Food Share is able to support that through the types of food we procure and donate."
McDevitt said Bridge House has much left to do to make its continuum of care for the homeless the best it can be, but she feels the Community Table Kitchen is a huge step in the right direction.
"It's a total win-win," she said. "It's taking Bridge House to the next level."
Contact Camera Staff Writer Joe Rubino at 303-473-1328 or firstname.lastname@example.org.