Providence cooks concoct inventive potlucks for Anchorage shelters

November 15, 2021


Home cooks routinely pair ingredients that seem random to create new, nutritious dishes for their families. At Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage cooks have done the same thing for over 35 years in order to feed individuals at two local shelters.

Cooks at Providence Alaska Medical Center use surplus food to whip up nutritious meals for clients of two Anchorage homeless shelters operated by Catholic Social Services. Recent menus have included the hearty chicken noodle soup below and the beef stir fry at right. Amanda Barlow, a registered dietician technician and production supervisor at the hospital, shows off her beef stir fry over rice.

"I love this program because throughit, we are really living up to the mission of the Sisters of Providence, and it keeps us connected to the community," said Amanda Barlow. A registered dietetic technician, she is production supervisor at the 401-bed hospital. Mother Emilie Gamelin, the French-Canadian social worker who founded the order, fed the hungry and the Sisters of Providence continued the practice in 1902 when they started the first hospital in Nome and provided social services during the Gold Rush.

Today, the medical center dishes up 800 meals a day for patients and plates another 700–1,000 meals in its cafeteria. At the end of each day, unsold food items and extra ingredients from the cafeteria are set aside. Combined with fresh ingredients the next afternoon, the food is made into meals that are packaged and delivered to the shelters at a cost to the hospital of about $1.44 per meal. The hospital provides dinner seven days a week to Brother Francis Shelter and dinner once a month to Clare House. Both programs are run by Catholic Social Services.


"The Sisters of Providence started by sharing soup, and we most often make that too," Barlow said, "though sometimes the cooks come up with chili, red beans and rice, chicken gumbo or casseroles, such as macaroni and cheese Florentine." Fifteen cooks are employed at the medical center, and the job of crafting the meals for the shelters rotates among five of them. "Last year, we had a primary cook, but now five individuals take turns, which gives them an opportunity to be creative."

Name that dish
Barlow's instructions are brief. "Make what you want," she tells the cooks, "and you get to name the dish, too." Creations have included Three Bean Meatloaf Soup, Sausage and Spinach Pasta and Creamy Potato Steak Soup. Available ingredients might include cafeteria leftovers from the three made-from-scratch entrees prepared each day plus side dishes such as rice, noodles or quinoa. The cafeteria production cook also makes a soup and a bean dish each day. Plus, fresh or frozen vegetables are available, as are cheese, frozen meatballs and chicken.


The cook preparing the meals for the shelter arrives at 11:30 a.m. and works plating patient trays until 1:30 p.m. Then it's time to survey what's available, put together the 60 to 80 meals that will be donated and package them for the delivery service. "The cooks enjoy being creative and they take pride in knowing they are making a difference by feeding someone a nutritious meal," Barlow said.

Hearty helpings
Brother Francis Shelter serves homeless women and men, refugees and individuals who are food insecure. The shelter provides overnight baggage storage, dinner, showers, laundry, basic medical care, medicine storage and a clothing room, plus programming and activities. COVID-19 has changed how much the emergency shelter can provide, said David Rittenberg, program manager.

"This past year, we've served 450 individuals. In the past, that number would be closer to 2,500, but social distancing has reduced it." The shelter went from 240 beds to just 72, concentrating on homeless seniors, elders and people with mobility issues. "The municipality has opened a 400-bed shelter in a hockey arena," Rittenberg said, "and that changed everything significantly. There, you have to be able to go up and down stairs, so we stepped in to serve people who can't."

The meals Providence donates are much appreciated. "The food comes every day, like clockwork, and it's a godsend for our program and our guests," Rittenberg said. "The meals are so valuable to us, and they are essential to help us carry out our mission to meet basic needs."

Rittenberg described the dinners from the medical center as "hot, nutritious and filling." Most often, he said, the meal is a hearty soup or stew served over rice, potatoes or spaghetti. At Thanksgiving, Providence sends over roasted turkeys with side dishes. At Christmas, ham or turkey may be on the menu. "Providence also supports our programs in lots of other ways, including donating money and providing volunteers," he said. "They are great partners in this community."

The first Tuesday of each month, the medical center sends meals for 60 people to Clare House, a shelter for homeless women and children. During fiscal year 2020, the shelter hosted 229 women and children. Providence is part of Clare House's "Meal Team," local agencies that provide dinners for guests 365 days a year. "They also send us bread, fruit, cold cuts, cheese and juice once a week," said Sharese Hughes, program director. "They've been helping us a long time."

Barlow, the production supervisor, has worked at Providence just two years, after moving from Las Vegas, where she worked in another Catholic hospital. "I found out about the meal donation program when I interviewed for the position here, and I was excited about it right away," she said. "I've always been somebody who wanted to help."


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