Almanac

Cover Story - December 21, 2011

More blessed to give

Jenn Holden knows about hunger, and what to do about it

by Barbara Wood

It's a little after 10 on Friday morning when the little white truck with the words on its side, "Angel Food — Good Deeds Delivered," pulls up to Hoover School in Redwood City.

Before Jenn Holden of Woodside — who everyone describes as Angel Food's angel — has finished parking, a group of women appear to unload the food crammed into every nook and cranny of the former Moffett Field utility vehicle.

They pull out fresh fruit and vegetables, cereal, butter, yogurt, milk and cheese, bread, beans, crackers, soup, canned goods, rice, tortillas, eggs, cooking oil, lunch meat and more.

Inside the Hoover Family Center, the contents of the tiny truck seem to expand to fill an entire room.

Accompanied by Spanish Christmas music, the women quickly divide large packages of food into smaller ones, and start filling bags with food for 15 families. The food is designed to help the families get through the weekend, when the free school meals their children usually rely on are not available.

In the meantime, John Holden arrives in the Hoover parking lot to pick up 20 bagged lunches his wife put together that morning in the Redwood City commercial kitchen of Encore Catering, where she rents space. The bags go to the East Palo Alto Academy, a charter public high school in Menlo Park, to supplement the students' weekend food. The bags are discreetly handed out by coaches and teachers.

Tanuja Bali, from Los Altos, is also in the Hoover parking lot, her car loaded with home-baked goodies and whole-wheat sandwiches she has prepared. They will go into the bag lunches and into food bags Ms. Holden hands out to homeless people, plus serve as dessert for the communal Saturday lunch Angel Food provides for a group at the Riekes Center in Menlo Park.

Angel Food is only three months old, but it is something Jenn Holden has spent decades preparing for. Born in San Francisco, and living on the Midpeninsula since 1982, she knows about food from working in local restaurants including Nina's Cafe, the Skywood Chateau and Iberia. She spent three years as manager at Bucks restaurant in Woodside, where owner Jamis MacNiven introduced her to her husband, John.

She also knows those who need food, from working as assistant manager of a Redwood City homeless shelter (a job she says she got after writing about "my days as a homeless runaway at 15"), as a food program manager for Samaritan House serving more than 300 meals a day, and as a case manager at Urban Ministry in Palo Alto.

"I knew hunger and neglect when I was young," she says, "and people's shame in admitting to being hungry resonates with me."

In India, she helped women set up a small business embroidering jeans and, most recently, she and John spent parts of the past four years in Guatemala working in hospitals and cooking for locals.

"I have seen people hungry and tried to help in India and Guatemala," she says. "Now I see a real need here at home, and right down the road."

The food she provides "is given discreetly and with dignity," she says.

At Hoover, the 15 families in the program call it "Bolsitas de Amor" or bags of love. Ms. Holden worked out the program with the families and Jana Kiser, Hoover's community school coordinator. Each family takes part for only four months, before letting other families on a waiting list participate. "The idea is that it's a leg up for four months," Ms. Kiser says.

The families also "give" of themselves. "We look at it as mutual service," Ms. Kiser says.

Once a month, Ms. Holden and the team of families cook together in the rented industrial kitchen space and share the end result with others who could use food. The group recently made more than 17 gallons of chicken soup that was shared with the Maple Street homeless shelter, neighbors and friends.

They have also committed to attend classes on family budgeting, take on leadership activities, and get others involved in Hoover by bringing four new people to a class or an event there.

Hoover School has more than 900 students with 90 percent classified as English language learners and 90 percent whose family income qualifies them for free or reduced prices lunches, Ms. Kiser says. "It's always an incredibly united, resilient community," she says.

Ms. Holden has been using the NextDoorWoodside website to let her neighbors know about Angel Food's needs, but the Holdens have been spending close to $500 a week to pay the expenses.

She is still exploring the final shape of the program. "I'm really in the discovery process of finding out who needs food," she says. "I realize there are other agencies that provide free food, so I am not trying to re-invent the meal."

Instead, she is trying to develop relationships so she can find people who for whatever reason — immigration status, illness, lack of transportation, pride — are not using existing resources.

Those Ms. Holden is working with cannot say enough about her. "She is just a model of kindness and compassion and empathy and also respect," says Ms. Kiser at the Hoover Family Center.

At Riekes Center, Gary Riekes is equally wowed. "She's truly an angel," he says. The food she brings, which the volunteers prepare as a group, brings together a diverse group in a common activity. "Everybody eats," he says.

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