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  • Writer's pictureSave the Food Austin


Photos and words by Tanya Liu

Maria, kitchen supervisor at McCabe House.

Maria arrives at work at 6am to begin the task of putting together a day’s worth of meals for anywhere between 60-80 people. As the kitchen supervisor at A New Entry, she has her hand in everything, from sourcing ingredients and maintaining the supplies and equipment, to the menu planning and the cooking and serving.

The residents at A New Entry’s McCabe House are suffering from substance abuse and co-occurring mental health issues, looking to restore their lives and rebuild their families. They are fortunate to have received funding from places such as Travis County’s Integral Care and the VA for the 30-day inpatient treatment program located in East Austin. All have limited financial means and most lack the insurance needed to fund a stay in a private rehab. On any given day, a full half of the population are veterans.

Needless to say, the budget is tight.

Jack of all trades Carlos with assistant facility director Ericka.

“Our meals depend on what we can get from the Central Texas Food Bank and Save the Food,” says Maria. “On Fridays, we get about 100-plus pounds from Save the Food, a lot of veggies, fruit, and salad. This week, we got quite a bit of milk and bread and pastries.” And with this, it’s Maria’s job to assemble a mish-mash of donations into warm, nourishing meals. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner – every day, she and her sous chef Ramiro prepare hundreds of meals.

Because of their reliance on donations, Maria’s had to become quite adroit at making do with what she has in the near-decade she’s worked at the McCabe House. “We recently got this stove donated,” she explains. Before this, the oven she had to work with was less than half the size. “The other one we had, we had to make makeshift racks on the bottom of the oven so we could cook more food at once. If we made chicken, we’d have to start so early, cooking a little at a time, and then keep everything warm.” She indicates to us the metal kitchen shelves that she used to fashion into oven racks. “And we only had three burners that worked. Now we have ten! We were so happy.”

Save the Food got connected to Maria through the nearby City of Austin neighborhood center. Each Friday, STF volunteers pick up 100-200lb of produce, dairy, meat, bakery, and packaged goods, donated by local grocery store Wheatsville Co-op, and deliver it to Maria. “By the next Friday, it’s long gone. It lasts us about two to three days.” She opens the refrigerator and reveals a fresh delivery of dairy, pastries, and produce. “All of this came from Save the Food! This is the milk they brought me this morning. This is why [the cooler] is so crowded right now, because they brought us plenty of milk! [The residents] eat cereal like crazy,” she says with a fond smile.

If nothing else is apparent, it’s Maria’s love for what she does every day. She speaks about her daily responsibilities at her job with passion and enthusiasm, and the residents love her too. “They say she cooks with love. The clients, they make me so happy. I love cooking, but when I give them the food, they’re so thankful and they tell me, ‘it’s delicious!’”

Unlike working at a private facility, where groceries and equipment can simply be ordered from a store or distributor, she has to work almost entirely with what she’s given, which can be a complicated task, especially now. Food banks have been experiencing unprecedented demand with the surge in unemployment effected by COVID-19, many volunteers are sheltering-in-place, and families everywhere who have never faced food insecurity suddenly find themselves in need of assistance to fill their plates. However, Maria says that amidst this time of heightened need, “a lot of people are stepping up and donating.” And she is intensely grateful for this generosity, for those who are choosing to demonstrate compassion and humanity for the less privileged during this era of social distancing and flour shortages. “It’s amazing.”

Tina shows off the treats from an ice cream social.

“Two or three weeks ago, and I don’t know how in the world they got our contact info, but they called me from Hoover’s restaurant on Manor Rd. They donated 75 servings – whole meals! BBQ chicken, potato salad, rolls, and sausage. We didn’t have to cook dinner that night!”

After a brief tour of the kitchen, we are in awe at Maria’s diligence and the way she gracefully – and cheerfully – navigates the obstacles chefs in other kitchens would never face. Given the pleasure and pride she takes in cooking for the residents here, we’re curious – what’s the one meal she cooks that they just can’t get enough of? Without hesitation, she responds, “Tacos! We make tacos and Spanish rice and salsa and guacamole, with sour cream. Everyone loves it!” And we could have guessed it - is there any other food that transcends socioeconomic divides or is as universally beloved as the taco?

Thank you to everyone at McCabe house for your time and hospitality - Ericka, Carlos, Jean, Tina, fellow cook and kitchen wizard Ramiro, and of course, Maria.

Save the Food is a 100% volunteer-run non-profit working to sustainably reduce food waste and feed vulnerable, underprivileged, and underserved populations in the Austin area. To donate, please click here.

A New Entry is a 501(c)3 non-profit that works to reintegrate those who are experiencing homelessness, substance abuse, and incarceration back into the community. For more info, click here.

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