Duckler: Things are really cooking these days in the fight to feed

  • Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Robert Chaisson of the 3643 BSB Company, cuts up chicken at the Manchester Food Bank on Thursday. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Robert Chaisson of the 3643 BSB Company, cuts up chicken at the Manchester Food Bank on Thursday, May 28, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Army National Guard First Sgt. Rachel Fleharty-Strevig of the 3643rd BSB Company throws an empty box while filling boxes of dairy items at the Manchester Food Bank. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Army National Guard troops from the 3643rd BSB Company fill boxes with dairy items – eggs, butter and milk – to be distributed from the Manchester Food Bank.

  • Army National Guard troops from the 3643rd BSB Company fill boxes with eggs, butter and milk  to be distributed.

Monitor columnist
Published: 5/30/2020 5:42:46 PM

Staff Sgt. Robert Chaisson of Danville forgot the dish’s name, but his prep work was smooth nonetheless, his fortitude unmatched.

He cut the roast chicken into neat slices, each about 1x3 inches, working the knife like Emeril on daytime TV. He cooked in a hot kitchen on a hot day at the New Hampshire Food Bank, his shaved head glistening with beads of sweat. He had a barrel chest, covered with a green, sweat-soaked New Hampshire National Guard T-shirt. He wore a mask, of course. A camouflage mask.

As for the latest meal he and his fellow guardsman were preparing? The sergeant needed help.

“Hey, Chef Paul, what are we making today!?” hollered Chaisson, his voice cutting through the humid din of echoing voices and pans banging.

“Honey ginger chicken!” shouted Chef Paul.

That’s Chef Paul Morrison, cooking teacher and guru for the New Hampshire Food Bank. He and Chaisson have earned their stripes, their right to be called chefs, through education.

They represent an alliance born right out of the COVID-19 scare. Sound familiar?

For six weeks, the Guard has been assisting the Food Bank in its daily mission of getting food to those who need it.

“In all honesty,” Chaisson said, “this is probably the best thing I’ve ever done in the New Hampshire National Guard. “It’s the first time I’ve ever been able to help out the state of New Hampshire.”

That’s if you don’t count Chaisson’s deployment to Afghanistan in 2013. Or the eight years he spent in the Marines, and now the eight in the Guard.

He’s the meat and potatoes of the Guard’s culinary team, making sure his colleagues are fed, and now he’s branching out into this Manchester kitchen at Food Bank headquarters.

The smell of Thursday’s honey ginger chicken made you hungry. The meals vary from day to day, but the routine remains the same. The Guard cooks and their helpers are in the Food Bank kitchen, working full-time until the world gets a handle on COVID-19, whatever that means.

Early, pans chicken, honey ginger style, were packed in pans and placed on shelves. While Chaisson sliced, another chicken, this one whole and frozen, sat in a sink off to one side, under a faucet of hot water for thawing.

The daily goal is 1,200 meals, maybe 5,000 to 8,000 per week, to be distributed to the Food Bank’s partner agencies, like the Concord Boys and Girls Club, which reheat and serve the meals.

The meals are frozen downstairs, waiting for delivery. Afterschool programs, so vital in providing food to kids on a tight family budget, benefit as well.

Moriah Webster of Manchester is the face of the Food Bank for this operation, the person responsible for guiding the Guard on this particular battlefield.

She plans the number of pans to go out, makes sure the meat is pulled from the freezer, inventories, documents, supervises the packing, makes sure everything goes to the agency that submitted the order.

PFV Luanna Mota of Portsmouth is one of three cooks who worked last Thursday. She had cooked for the Guard for two months before she was drafted for a different mission last month.

“We’ve just kind of been learning how the kitchen works, and once they explain it to us, we just kind of do what we’re told and crank out the meals,” Mota said. “It’s a good learning experience. I’ve never cooked such mass quantities before, so it’s definitely very cool. I’ve learned a lot from being here.”

Downstairs, in the cavernous warehouse, is a new world, aimed toward the same goal.

It’s a National Guard conveyor belt, a dozen members standing side by side, building boxes with packing tape, then putting eggs, milk and yogurt into the boxes, then returning to the packing tape to seal the deal, an snapshot of life that resembled airport security personnel checking the bags of shoeless travelers.

Boxes of food were piled high on pallets, to be passed out by the Guard’s traveling show of compassion, held at different designated spots on Saturdays. Saturday, boxes will be handed out in Dover.

Specialist Kali Dwyer of Alton builds boxes during this operation. She’s in her third year with the Guard and was moved over to this role six weeks ago. Work begins at 7 a.m. and often goes beyond eight hours. It’s hot, but many of the Guard members would be drilling in the hot sun if not for this crisis.

“It’s not too bad,” Dwyer said. “It’s definitely nice to be able to help out the people that really need this and depend on this, so we put in a lot of hours.”

First Sgt. Rachal Fleharty-Strevig of Epsom is in charge of the boxers. She’s NH Guard inside and out, an 18-year veteran who works fulltime as a contractor for the Guard. Her husband also serves with the Guard.

She’s the leader during this portion, keeping that rhythmic flow of the assembly line moving. She was cheerful, friendly, welcoming. All Guard members and Food Bank workers were, adjusting to the weird like the rest of us as best they could.

“Nobody really thought the pandemic we were going to have, with the shortage of food, people being laid off from their jobs.” Fleharty-Strevig said. “Being able to provide that food to our own communities is very rewarding. It’s very humbling, and there’s just a lot of satisfaction going that you are helping out, literally, your neighbor.”

This is their job now. They have no idea when this emergency will calm down, when they can go back to the life they, and all of us, once knew.

So they box and they cook and they sweat, trying to make a difference. People like Staff Sgt. Chaisson, who’s helped the Food Bank cook between 5,000 and 8,000 meals a week recently.

He had been cooking chicken for an hour Thursday by time I gave him a break, and that glistening bald head and soaked shirt told you he was working hard. He had another hour of slicing, using his knife like a third hand, like he had been born with it.

Emeril would have nodded in approval.

“Once they’re done and the sauce is on them and everything is equaled out,” Chaisson said, “we’ll label them and they go down to the freezer and wait to be pushed out to local agencies. It gets shipped out to them and they reheat it and then they serve it out to people who really need it.


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