TARPON SPRINGS — Think fast: What do 100 pounds of chicken, 25 pounds of rice, 72 cans of vegetables, 50 pounds of bread, 30 pounds of pastries and lots of coffee and juice equal? Answer: lunch for 140.
If you just eat up that kind of math, you might be a perfect fit at the Shepherd Center of Tarpon Springs, which is seeking volunteers to beef up its ranks of soup kitchen chefs and keep up with increasing demand.
No experience? No problem! The nonprofit's food mission manager, Steve Bush, is a retired firefighter, former Army mess hall cook and professional chef who is recruiting volunteers eager to learn the art of cooking for the masses.
Bush says the concept isn't as daunting as it sounds.
"It's not really an art. It's so easy," Bush, 48, of Holiday says, adding that timing is everything. "If you can cook for your family, I can teach you how to ... make that four turn into 104 real quick."
That's comforting to know, given that Shepherd Center officials estimate daily visitors to the nonprofit's community kitchens have jumped 20 percent in the last year alone.
The center got its start in 1974 when four people who saw need in the community made a dozen holiday baskets for seniors. That outreach has expanded to include a thrift store, a weekly blood pressure clinic, free monthly eye exams and utilities assistance for low-income families, the homeless and the elderly.
About 2,000 families a month receive groceries through the Shepherd Center's food pantry at 780 S Pinellas Ave. Additionally, volunteers help cook and serve roughly 120 to 170 meals a day — or about 1,000 a week — at five nearby partner churches and community centers.
Recruited by his mother, Bush began volunteering his services at the Shepherd Center five years ago and was tapped for the head chef position eight weeks ago.
In addition to supervising and sometimes assisting cooks and servers at the soup kitchens, Bush runs the nonprofit's pantry.
But volunteers, he said, are the backbone of the nonprofit's operation.
A rotation of about 15 cooks, who donate a day or two of their time each week or month, have been struggling to keep up with demand. Over the last three or so years, he said, the kitchens' client base has increasingly included families with children and professionals who have fallen on hard times.
"If everybody in town would give two hours a year volunteer service, we would have plenty of help," Bush said. "It's a labor of love."
That's the message that drew in volunteer cook Jack Beyer, who met Bush at church two months ago.
The 69-year-old Crystal Beach man was initially nervous. He had only cooked meals for his family of five. But Bush and others quickly showed him the ropes and offered up menu ideas.
"It was something that wasn't as hard as I thought it was going to be to do," Beyer said. "It was just a matter of taking our family recipes and scaling them up to 100 people."
The key, Beyer said, is planning ahead. From hot dogs with beans to Greek fare to chicken kiev, cooks are encouraged to get as creative as they want using whatever is available in the Shepherd Center pantry.
The Shepherd Center uses thrift store proceeds to supplement food donations from local stores, area churches, community food drives and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The nonprofit is also partnering with nearby Church on the Bayou on a community garden that will help generate additional produce and spices.
Beyer said he and his kitchen crew, consisting of his wife and 31-year-old son, look forward each month to blending family time with the "hectic" hustle and bustle of meal prep at the Ring Village community center. Customers can eat as many plates as they want and take a bag home.
"The nice thing is there is plenty of feedback. The people you are working for are so appreciative and they let you know how thankful they are. And it kind of spurs you on to really want to cook a great meal," Beyer said.
One recent Tuesday, Leeann Brown, a Shepherd Center thrift store volunteer before she herself became homeless, carefully arranged a to-go plate in her lunch box, then turned to savor a slice of frosted cake.
Currently living in a tent in the woods, the 31-year-old said she uses Shepherd Center meals to supplement food stamps and items from other area food pantries and programs. That frees up money to contribute to the care of her 7-year-old daughter, who is in her mother's custody, and for classes at Palm Harbor's Central Florida Institute, where she's studying to be a medical assistant.
"I'm trying to put my situation back together. I'm back in college and trying to get a job, but some people don't have anything," Brown said, and that thanks to the soup kitchens, "there's no way to starve."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.