A soothing cup of soup, a service to the community
Virginia Cooperative Extension’s new Carver Food Enterprise Center is preparing hundreds of servings of soup for community members from locally sourced produce.
Pat Hearns’ smile stretched across her face as she raised her gloved hands, stained in a rich orange hue. A box full of massive, mutant-like sweet potatoes rested at her feet.
Her eyes were a little misty from the pungent smell of onions that filled the room.
Behind Hearns, the Harvey family had lost count of the onions - how many bags of onions, how many boxes of onions - they had chopped. Knives in hand and goodwill in heart, they diligently continued their duties – as did the rest of the volunteers in the Carver Food Enterprise Center in Rapidan, Virginia, one November afternoon.
They were on a mission to prepare 500 servings of sweet potato soup for people – their neighbors – in the surrounding communities.
This was the second community service project to be cooked up in the new commercial kitchen, located in the historical George Washington Carver Regional High School, now called The Carver Center. In October, volunteers prepared 500 servings of butternut squash soup in the same manner and for the same cause.
The project is fittingly called Feeding 500.
Throughout the past several years, The Carver Center – once a segregated, Black-only school – has transformed into a multipurpose community space, housing the Virginia State University Small Farm Outreach, the Minority and Veteran Farmers of the Piedmont, Friends of the Rappahannock, the Carver 4-County Museum, the Culpeper County Virginia Cooperative Extension office, and the commercial kitchen. The center serves the Rappahannock-Rapidan region, a five-county region of Culpeper, Madison, Orange, Rappahannock, and Fauquier.
The commercial kitchen opened in September and offers users a 10-burner stove and oven, two stock pot burners, prep tables, ample cold and dry storage, and an extensive equipment library. The kitchen is available to small food businesses, farmers, producers, community partners, and those looking for room to create, say, massive quantities of delicious, nutritious, and locally sourced soup for those in need.
The 220 pounds of sweet potatoes were donated by the nearby Fauquier Education Farm.
Lenah Nguyen, a senior Extension agent, said food banks are often inundated with fresh produce such as sweet potatoes and butternut squash. Although they are a healthy option, they can be difficult to cook, especially for people who may not know how or have the proper tools and equipment to prepare them.
Feeding 500 aims to remove those challenging steps and turn heavy harvested produce into high-quality, no-fuss meals for those who need it, Nguyen said.
Volunteers diced the potatoes, along with 48 pounds of onions, and roasted them in dozens of batches. Once nice and tender, the mixture was blended with roasted red peppers, stock, seasoning, and a splash of lime juice. Ice was added to help the soup cool quickly and safely before being stored for consumption. Safety is a top priority of Feeding 500. The Carver Food Enterprise Center has a commissary permit from the Virginia Department of Health and all volunteers receive a food safety briefing before entering the kitchen, Nguyen said.
Adam Harvey had the honor of blending the first batch of soup with a gigantic immersion blender. With a little instruction and a lot of finesse, he was impressed as he inspected and smelled the fragrant puree.
A creamy and savory soup, chock full of nutrients and a lot of love.
The soup was transferred into individual containers and frozen. Volunteers were pleased to learn that their efforts resulted in not 500, but 700 servings of soup. The 60 pounds of potatoes leftover were seasoned, vacuum sealed, and distributed to food bank clients for easy roasting.
The prepared soup was delivered the next day to homebound senior citizens and area food pantries, such as the Culpeper Food Closet.
“We are so excited to be a beneficiary of this heavy harvest at the Carver Food Enterprise Center,” said Faith Dickerson, director of the Culpeper Food Closet. “We know that this is going to go from the hands that have worked today into our freezer, and it will soon be on people’s tables.”
Seeing the community come together and participate in such a meaningful cause, especially so close to the holiday season, was inspiring to witness, said Gretchen Ledmor, the program director of the Carver Food Enterprise Center.
“It is the most fulfilling experience,” Ledmor said. “The outpouring of the community around us has been so exciting and inspiring. In a time when we're feeling more and more separated, whenever these moments of building and coming together happen – it just feels absolutely amazing.”
The Feeding 500 project is funded by the Better Together grant through the PATH Foundation, a philanthropic charitable foundation that supports Fauquier, Rappahannock, and Culpeper counties.