The Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma, based in Tulsa, always has eye-popping numbers for the food it provides to those in need covering 22 counties.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, those numbers are spiraling upward, thanks to the efforts of food bank executive chef Jeff Marlow and partnerships with Tulsa Kitchens Unite, Hunger Free Oklahoma and Food on the Move.
During a recent week, 32,100 meals were delivered, including thousands to local schoolchildren.
“We’re in the middle of a 12-week program, and it has been a challenge to ramp up our capacity,” Marlow said recently. “We are seeing so many new people who are out of work and are hungry and need food.
“We have 23 restaurants working with us. I acquire the food from donations and by ordering through food vendors, mainly Ben E. Keith, and then make the menus, write the recipes, handle the boxes and labeling and figure out the logistics. The restaurants do the cooking. Our kitchen is still handling the weekly needs we always have.”
Marlow said the food bank warehouse is filled with food every night, then he and his staff of five check it out about 7:30 every morning.
“We go in and see what we have,” Marlow said. “It’s like going to market every day. I couldn’t do it without my culinary team, who are shouldering a big load because we have totally cut out volunteers inside the food bank. The National Guard has given us 15 people, and the extra manpower really helps us with some of the time-consuming tasks.”
Marlow said some of the meals recently featured a crispy pork chop, grilled chicken breast, meatloaf, beef steakfingers and beef Bolognese.
“The beef Bolognese might not be exactly the traditional recipe,” Marlow said.
“We call it Food Bank Bolognese, but it still is restaurant-quality food. We want to serve the best meals possible to those in need. We aren’t a soup kitchen.”
Marlow has a background in feeding big crowds. He cooked under chef Devin Levine at Southern Hills Country Club (now executive chef for BOK Center/Cox Business Center) and spent nine years as executive chef at Oaks Country Club.
“I learned under Devin, and I still call on him for advice,” Marlow said. “He is one of the most generous and kind chefs you will meet. Country clubs do a lot of mass production, which is similar to what I do today.”
Marlow said he has been working seven days a week, often not finishing until about 10 p.m.
“It’s a bittersweet thing,” he said.
“I hate to see people struggling, but it is rewarding to do something like this to be able to help people. It’s cool to be part of it, and I feel really good at the end of the day.
“It takes everybody working together to pull through this. It’s going to be a marathon, not a sprint.”
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